Monday, May 26, 2014

Portable classrooms cause environmental and health risks

Poor IAQ can affect student
performance and health: Experts
Modular classrooms are common in many school districts.

The prefabricated structures come cheap and fast. They offer a lifeline for districts with more students than building capacity, a problem recent projections show will worsen in coming years.

An estimated 385,000 portables are in use at schools across the country. But portable classrooms more often than not become permanent fixtures.

The largest districts in Oregon and Washington now have thousands of them and a majority are more than 20 years old, data collected by InvestigateWest and EarthFix show.

Those short-term fixes can lead to chronic problems. They burden schools with high energy costs and frequent maintenance needs. They expose students and teachers to mold and mildew, poor ventilation and the potential for volatile gases from cheap building materials.

Tear open a portable and often you will find cheap plywood, particle board, insulating foams and glues — the modular industry often builds to order, and school budgets are tight.

Construct four walls and a roof from that, expose it to the elements for a decade longer than intended and watch your energy and maintenance costs soar.

Students and teachers say the learning experience in portables is compromised by poor lighting, erratic temperatures and noisy heating and air conditioning.

The structures often are relegated to soggy fields or parking lots, near noise and vehicle exhaust.

Indoor air quality experts have only recently begun to quantify indoor air pollution and its effects on student performance.

Here are some tips:

  • Use your nose. If you can smell the humanity and taste the humidity, you know you have a ventilation issue.
  • Use a device that detects carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.
  • Make changes to improve IAQ. Indoor air is always worse than outdoor air, with very few exceptions, experts say.

Indoor air quality problems are widespread in schools across the country, according to Brenda Doroski, director of the Center for Asthma and Schools at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Issues include poor ventilation, mold, and radon in addition to improper use or storage of chemicals and pesticides, she says.

The first and only large-scale study of portable classrooms in particular was done by the California Air Resources Board in 2004, in response to numerous complaints.

The study found inadequate fresh air during 40 percent of classroom hours. It also found higher levels of formaldehyde — a chemical used in building materials linked to cancer and childhood asthma — that exceeded the state’s chronic exposure limits in nearly all portable classrooms.

Levels in portables also more frequently exceeded acute exposure limits designed to protect against respiratory problems.

Such problems occur in all types of classrooms, particularly those where maintenance has lagged, but experts say they find them more often in portables.

Source: Earth Fix OPB. This article has been edited for length.

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Family says drilling caused health problems

Those living near gas wells
say their health suffers.
Arguments are heating up in western Colorado and other areas over questions about human-health impacts from the region’s oil-and-gas industry.

In Texas, a jury recently awarded nearly $3 million to a family in Decatur, Texas, about 60 miles northwest of Dallas, over the family’s claims that nearby natural-gas extraction activities were making them sick.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, a Roaring Fork Valley doctor has conducted blood and urine tests on a family in Silt who also claim to have been made sick by nearby oil and gas activities.

In addition, Dr. John Hughes, of the Aspen Integrative Medicine group, who conducted the tests on the Silt family, confirmed on Thursday that testing is to be expanded and that he is seeking volunteers from among those living near natural-gas facilities in western Garfield County.

The oil-and-gas industry has long disputed claims that its activities make its residential neighbors sick, pointing to a lack of documentary proof of any such illnesses among those living near gas-drilling facilities.

And in Garfield County, air-quality-monitoring programs detected no violations of federal air-quality standards in 2013 other than “a slight increase in the amount of benzene detected in the air” compared with previous years, according to an April 21 article in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.

Still, the Colorado Health Department in February issued new rules for statewide regulation of air pollution by the oil-and-gas industry, and an array of those living near the industry’s wells and other facilities continue to maintain that their air is being fouled by industry activities.

Peggy Tibbetts, of Silt, along with her daughter, Ema, and 12-year-old granddaughter, Hailey, had their blood and urine tested in early April by a nurse working for Hughes.

The testing was done at the family’s expense, Tibbetts noted, saying it was an expensive process undertaken only after the family started showing symptoms that included upper respiratory infections, swollen glands, sore throat, congestion, coughing, sneezing, earaches, shortness of breath and itchy, watery, burning eyes.

The results of those tests have indicated that the family has been contaminated by what are known as volatile organic compounds, substances that are commonly associated with oil- and gas-extraction activities, according to data made available to Aspen Journalism by Hughes’ office.

VOCs in the blood

The samples were sent for analysis to a lab at Colorado State University, which detected the presence of volatile organic compounds — ethylbenzene and zylene — in the blood samples, Hughes reported.

The lab also detected metabolites — chemicals left over by the human body’s metabolic processes — of several volatile organic compounds in the urine samples.

The metabolites, according to the results sent to Hughes, indicated that the patients had been exposed to benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, which together make up the BTEX group of volatile organic compounds, which often are associated with natural-gas activities and some of which are known to cause illness in humans.

Studies have concluded that exposure to certain BTEX compounds can result in skin and sensory irritation, depression of the central nervous system and effects on the respiratory system. Prolonged exposure to these compounds, researchers say, also can harm the kidney, liver and blood systems.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there is sufficient evidence from both human epidemiological and animal studies that benzene is a human carcinogen. Workers exposed to high levels of benzene in occupational settings were found to have an increase in leukemia.

The family of Bill and Beth Strudley, who formerly lived on Silt Mesa, in 2010 began becoming ill, experiencing nosebleeds, skin rashes and other ailments.

They blamed their health problems on nearby natural-gas-drilling activity and have filed a lawsuit against the Antero Resources energy company that currently is before the Colorado Supreme Court.

Upon hearing about the Texas jury award, Tibbetts remarked, “It’s great news.”

Industry representatives have maintained that the facts of the case, which was filed as a “nuisance” suit under specific state laws, did not warrant the award, and Aruba Petroleum is likely to appeal.

According to the Law360 website, industry legal experts are worried that, even if the jury’s award is overturned on appeal, the jury’s findings could “give encouragement to plaintiffs considering bringing suit” over similar circumstances as those in Decatur.

Source: Aspen Times. The article has been edited for length.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

World's cities have too much air pollution: WHO

Poor air quality in most cities is bad for
people's health: Experts
The World Health Organization says air pollution in many of the world's cities is breaching its guidelines.

Its survey of 1,600 cities in 91 countries revealed that nearly 90% of people in urban centres breathe air that fails to meet levels deemed safe.

The WHO says that about half of the world's urban population is exposed to pollution at least 2.5 times higher than it recommends.

Air quality was poorest in Asia, followed by South America and Africa.

"Too many urban centres today are so enveloped in dirty air that their skylines are invisible," said Dr Flavia Bustreo, the WHO's assistant director-general for family, children and women's health.

"Not surprisingly, this air is dangerous to breathe."

Poor air = Health risks

The WHO currently sets safe levels of air quality based on the concentration of polluting particles called particulate matter (PM) found in the air.

It recommends that levels of fine particles called PM2.5 should not be more than 10 micrograms per cubic metre on average over a year, and slightly larger pollutants, called PM10, should not reach more than 20 micrograms per cubic metre on average.

But the Urban Air Quality database showed that many areas were breaching these levels.

Some cities in Asia showed extremely high levels of pollution. Peshawar in Pakistan registered a PM10 level of 540 micrograms per cubic metre over a period of two months in 2010, while Delhi in India had an average PM2.5 of 153 micrograms per cubic metre in the same year.

Cities in South America, including Rio De Janeiro in Brazil, also fared badly.

But the WHO says it is still lacking data, especially from cities in Africa, where poor air quality is a growing concern.

The most recent figures suggest that seven million people around the world died as a result of air pollution in 2012. It is estimated that 3.7 million of these deaths were from outdoor air pollution.

The WHO calls it the world's single largest environmental health risk, and links poor air quality to heart disease, respiratory problems and cancer.

"We cannot buy clean air in a bottle, but cities can adopt measures that will clean the air and save the lives of their people," said Dr Carlos Dora from the WHO.

Source: BBC

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Occupational diseases on the rise: Nfld report

Occupational disease comes from constant
exposure to irritants at work over a long time.
A new report from the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission (WHSCC) of Newfoundland and Labrador has offered both good and bad news about oh&s in the province.

On one hand, last year’s lost-time incidence rate of 1.6 (meaning 1.6 incidents per 100 workers), the same as the rate for 2012, was the lowest calculated in the WHSCC’s history.

The rate has steadily declined over the past 13 years, the commission claimed in a press release about the report on April 24.

But the report also noted that of the 30 work-related fatalities that had occurred in 2013, 25 of them resulted from occupational illness. This was an increase from 20 occupational disease deaths in 2012.

The province has also seen a rise in the average number of occupational disease fatalities per year over the past decade, according to Leslie Galway, the WHSCC’s chief executive officer.

From 2004 to 2008, the annual average number of deaths from occupational disease was 13; over the subsequent five years, the annual average was 21.

“We’ve been tracking occupational disease and the fatality aspects as one part of that for a long while,” said Galway. “In a working population of this size, we would be concerned with these outcomes.”

Galway defined occupational disease as illness that results from constant exposure to irritants at work over a long period of time.

Common examples of irritants include dust from asbestos or silica, toxic fumes from chemicals and loud noise. The latter can seriously affect hearing over the long run.

As for how the overall rate of workplace injuries and deaths could decline while occupational disease increased, Galway explained that occupational disease is a long-term development.

“So if you think of something like asbestos or silica dust, it’s usually over a career, and it can be that the exposure took place between 10 or 15 years followed by another 20 years of latency while the disease actually develops,” she said.

“So it takes quite a period of time before you actually see this demonstrated as a disease and a claim to the commission.”

Source: OHS Canada

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Monday, May 12, 2014

Another health risk in nail salons

Nail dryers joins risks such as fumes from polishes and gels

Nail salons often use nail dryers to
harden gel manicures.
Nail salon dryers, which use ultraviolet light to speed the drying and hardening of nail polishes and gels, emit varying levels of radiation that can lead to risky skin damage in as few as eight visits to the manicurist, a new study shows.

The nail dryers emit primarily UVA light — the same kind of ultraviolet light used in tanning beds — and are used to dry nail polish or to harden a gel manicure. Gel manicures are popular because they create long-lasting, shiny nails through a chemical gel that is painted on the nail in layers and cured under UV light after every coating.

Case reports of two women who developed squamous cell skin cancers on their hands have suggested an association between cancer and the UV nail light devices, but most doctors agree the risk is low.

In the new study, researchers from Georgia Regents University in Augusta conducted a random sampling of 17 different UV nail lamps found in salons to determine how much ultraviolet radiation is being emitted when clients dry their nails under the lights.

The study, published as a research letter this week in the journal JAMA Dermatology, found wide variation in the dose of UVA light emitted during eight minutes of nail drying or hardening. The dose, measured in joules per centimeter squared, ranged from less than one to eight.

“There is a vast range in the amount of light coming out of these devices,” said Dr. Lyndsay R. Shipp, the study’s lead author and a postgraduate resident at the university’s Medical College of Georgia. The amount of UV exposure ranged from “barely” to “significant,” she said.

DNA damage that can lead to skin cancer is known to occur around 60 joules per centimeter squared, and none of the nail lamps came close to that number. However, the researchers estimated that for most of the lamps tested, eight to 14 visits over 24 to 42 months would reach the threshold for DNA damage to the skin.

The study authors noted that the “risk from multiple manicure visits remains untested,” but the study suggested that “even with numerous exposures, the risk for carcinogenesis remains small.”

Dr. Shipp said, “There is a theoretical risk, but it’s very low.”

Lamps with higher-wattage bulbs emitted the highest levels of UV radiation, but it would not be easy for a salon client to check the wattage before using a machine. Dr. Shipp said she sometimes uses the nail lamps and will continue to do so.

“I do use them every couple of months,’’ she said, noting that “you can get that amount of exposure when driving down the road in your car.”

Clients who are concerned about the risk but want to continue getting gel manicures, which require UV light, have a few options. They can skip the lotion-and-massage portion of the manicure and instead coat their hands with sunscreen before having gel nails applied. Another option is to wear UV-protective gloves with the fingertips cut off so only the nails are exposed to the light. Users of regular nail polish can try fans or air-drying if they want to avoid the devices.

Source: NY Times

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Friday, May 9, 2014

Smartphone factory workers exposed to dangerous chemicals

The number of victims of toxic chemical exposures keeps
rising, advocacy groups say.
Dangerous chemicals are killing workers in factories that assemble processor chips for Apple and Samsung smartphones, advocacy groups claim.

Worker representatives, advocacy groups and academics are demanding manufacturers lift their standards to eradicate the dangerous conditions causing occupational leukaemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

With more than 100 victims and counting, they claim companies have so far turned a blind eye, and said that Samsung is actively subverting the victims' pursuit of compensation and justice.

The problem originates in 'clean rooms', dust-free environments where semi-conductors, used in electronics such as smartphones and LCD TVs, are produced.

Only armed with 'white bunny-suits' designed to minimise contamination, workers frequently handle and inhale chemical cocktails whose purpose is to sterilise materials, including wafers.

These chemicals include benzene, a carcinogen, and trichloroethylene, which are known to cause occupational leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

As the air is rapidly re-circulated, these enclosures incubate the cancer.

Toiling for prolonged periods every day, workers have contracted the disease just a few years after they started working at Samsung. Some died soon after.

In 2012, university researchers investigated 17 Koreans workers at Samsung's Giheung semiconductor plant who had contracted the cancers. They recommended all workers should immediately be protected from the potential exposures to chemicals.

However, they said more research was required to prove a formal link with cancer and semiconductor production, because Samsung hadn't granted access to the working conditions.

Samsung victims seek compensation

Korean-based worker rights group Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry (SHARPS) is assisting more than 50 Samsung workers trying to claim workers' compensation from the government.

The first case was filed in 2007 and their ongoing efforts have achieved mixed results.

The government's workers' compensation fund initially refused to pay the victims, or their families, said SHARPS spokeswoman Dr Jeong-ok Yoo Kong. These decisions were subsequently overturned by the courts.

Now the government – with Samsung's help – is appealing to the country's High Court.

"Samsung has been joining the lawsuit to support the government as a 'name of reference' for the defendant," Dr Kong told Fairfax Media.

The victims want the government to pay compensation in order to set a precedent for all Samsung workers.

"They just want to open the door," she said.

The case will next be heard on May 15.

According to Korean reports, Justice Party representative Sim Sang-jung plans to introduce a bill into the South Korean parliament forcing Samsung to apologise and compensate the victims.

Kim Jun-shik, an executive vice-president of Samsung Electronics, last week told reporters in South Korea that the company is reviewing the proposals "in a sincere manner", and will make an official response soon. The company maintains a web page with information on benzene. It says it does not use benzene in its fabrication processes, but that researchers have found traces of it in its factories.

The United Nations International Labour Organisation has found serious chemical-related incidents happen in workplaces, and said there needs to be a global response by governments, employers, and workers to address the issue.

Global problem

The problems aren't limited to Korea's Samsung.

In China, 52 workers diagnosed with occupational leukaemia signed a declaration to ban benzene. Many of these worked at factories in Hubei where semiconductors are fabricated for the iPhone.

Apple has previously said it leads the industry in removing toxins from its products, and requires suppliers to meet, or exceed, American safety standards.

Ms White said occupational cancer is seriously under-diagnosed and subsequently under-reported by the government. It gives global brands a false sense of security and prevents workers from accessing the medical compensation they are owed.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald. This article has been edited for length.

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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Top 25 cities with most Energy Star buildings

Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, New York, San Francisco make top five

Healthier buildings can impact employee health
and well-being and benefit the environment.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the sixth annual list of the top 25 U.S. metropolitan areas with the most Energy Star certified buildings.

The cities on this list demonstrate the economic and environmental benefits achieved by facility owners and managers when they apply a proven approach to energy efficiency to their buildings.

The Top 10 cities on the list are: Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; New York; San Francisco; Chicago; Dallas; Denver; Philadelphia; and Houston.

"Not only are the Energy Star top 25 cities saving money on energy costs and increasing energy efficiency, but they are promoting public health by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions from commercial buildings,” said Administrator Gina McCarthy.

“Every city has an important role to play in reducing emissions and carbon pollution, and increasing energy efficiency to combat the impacts of our changing climate.”

Energy use in commercial buildings accounts for 17 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions at a cost of more than $100 billion per year.

Energy Star certified office buildings cost $0.50 less per square foot to operate than average office buildings, and use nearly two times less energy per square foot than average office buildings.

Cities with more Energy Star buildings are increasing efficiency,
protecting health and battling pollution

The data also show that more than 23,000 buildings across America earned EPA’s Energy Star certification by the end of 2013.

These buildings saved more than $3.1 billion on utility bills and prevented greenhouse gas emissions equal to the annual electricity use from 2.2 million homes.

First released in 2008, the list of cities with the most Energy Star certified buildings continues to demonstrate how cities across America, with help from Energy Star, are embracing energy efficiency as a simple and effective way to save money and prevent pollution.

Los Angeles has remained the top city since 2008 while Washington, D.C. continues to hold onto second place for the fifth consecutive year. Atlanta moved up from the number five to number three. For the first time, Philadelphia entered the top 10, ranking ninth.

Commercial buildings that earn EPA’s Energy Star must perform in the top 25 percent of similar buildings nationwide and must be independently verified by a licensed professional engineer or a registered architect.

Energy Star certified buildings use an average of 35 percent less energy and are responsible for 35 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than typical buildings.

Many types of commercial buildings can earn the Energy Star, including office buildings, K-12 schools, hotels, and retail stores.

Products, homes and buildings that earn the Energy Star label prevent greenhouse gas emissions by meeting strict energy efficiency requirements set by the U.S. EPA. In 2013 alone, Americans, with the help of Energy Star, saved an estimated $30 billion on their utility bills and prevented greenhouse gas emissions equal to the annual electricity use of more than 38 million homes.

From the first Energy Star qualified computer in 1992, the Energy Star label can now be found on products in more than 70 different categories, with more than 4.5 billion sold. Over 1.5 million new homes and 23,000 commercial buildings and industrial plants have earned the Energy Star label.

The 2014 Energy Star Top Cities are:

1. Los Angeles
2. Washington, DC
3. Atlanta
4. New York
5. San Francisco
6. Chicago
7. Dallas-Fort Worth
8. Denver
9. Philadelphia
10. Houston
11. Charlotte
12. Phoenix
13. Boston
14. Seattle
15. San Diego
16. Minneapolis-St. Paul
17. Sacramento
18. Miami
19. Cincinnati
20. San Jose
21. Columbus, Ohio
22. Riverside, Calif.
23. Detroit
24. Portland, Ore.
25. Louisville

Source: EPA

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Monday, May 5, 2014

Toxic fumes on air planes worries experts

Toxic air can affect air plane staff and passengers.
A senior engineer at aircraft giant Boeing warned bosses they would be “looking for a tombstone” unless they tackled the potentially deadly issue of toxic fumes on board passenger planes, a bombshell email reveals.

The Sunday Express obtained a memo written by a long serving employee at the US company in which he complains he and other engineers have been given the “run around” over their fears.

The engineer was so worried about the risk to passengers on board Boeing’s planes he told bosses he was amazed air safety regulators were not taking stronger action.

He said in the email Boeing was fully aware of the issue and some of the events that had been witnessed, including blue clouds of chemical compounds circulating above passengers’ heads, were “significant”.

The email was sent in 2007 and campaigners say it shows how much the aviation industry was concerned despite public statements even today that the air is safe.

The issue of toxic air, which regularly forces pilots to don oxygen masks, is one of the most serious facing the aviation industry, yet passengers are generally unaware it even exists.

According to official Civil Aviation Authority records, the entire crew of a British registered Airbus was taken to hospital for toxicology tests following a “fume event” on an unidentified flight to Geneva last month.

Yet just days later, Transport Minister Baroness Kramer told Parliament passengers had no automatic right to know whether they too might have suffered.

She flatly rejected a call by the Countess of Mar in the House of Lords to force airlines to inform passengers whenever a fume event occurs.

She also said there was little point in installing air quality monitors on board because “it is not clear what a monitoring system would be seeking to detect”.

Experts, such as the highly respected aviation analyst David Learmount, say this potentially endangers the long term health of those who fly.

Unfiltered air inside aircraft

The issue concerns the way breathing air enters the cockpit and passenger cabin.

On almost every aircraft, the air passengers breathe is sucked unfiltered into the cabin from the compression section of jet engines and is known as “bleed air".

Any oil leak at high temperatures in the engine seals, which can occur when pilots change the thrust of the plane, can release a complex mixture of potentially toxic fumes containing organophosphates.

Crew and passengers would only be aware of a possible leak by a strange, pungent, often likened to “smelly socks”.

A build up of these organophosphates has the ability to attack the body’s nervous system, causing serious illnesses.

However, because the term “aerotoxic syndrome” is not widely recognised by the medical profession, doctors will rarely ascribe its symptoms, such as nausea and loss of cognitive ability, to hours of flying.

It is argued the aviation industry deliberately plays down the significance of the issue for fear of the multibillion pound consequences.

Whenever questioned on the issue, airlines and aircraft manufacturers repeatedly state cabin air is safe and point to a much criticised Government-backed study by Cranfield University in 2011 which found no evidence of any harm to long term health.

Source: Daily Express This article has been edited for length.

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Friday, May 2, 2014

OSHA works to update chemical exposure limits

Exposure to air contaminants at work has
been linked to many health problems.
In an apparent effort to kickstart agency action on updating permissible exposure limits for hundreds of chemicals, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration asked the White House April 15 to approve a request to gather information on ways to address chemical exposure.

OSHA cited widespread agreement that the majority of the agency's exposure limits are decades out-of-date and need revising.

But agency attempts have gone nowhere since a 1992 appeals court decision scuttled a blanket measure on exposure limits for nearly 400 chemicals.

The specifics of OSHA's request for information (RIN: 1218-AC74) won't be publicly available until the White House Office of Management and Budget completes its review.

Agencies typically issue formal requests for information in the context of setting up future rulemaking, but OSHA may be soliciting views on a range of alternatives.

The problem of outdated exposure limits seems to need a creative solution, given the legal, political and practical restrictions that OSHA faces.

Working on exposure limits one chemical at a time is nearly impossible given the agency's limited resources, said Aaron Trippler, director of government affairs at the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

Changing the law to update the limits and amend the process to make it easier for OSHA to update the limits moving forward is complicated by the reality of Congress actually drafting, introducing and passing legislation, Trippler said.

“That doesn't leave too many other options,” so OSHA is putting out a request for information, Trippler told Bloomberg BNA. “By chance there may be something no one has thought of to date.”

Alternatives to Rulemaking?

OSHA has tried non-regulatory efforts to mitigate the potential for worker harm that results from out-of-date exposure limits.

In October 2013, the agency launched a pair of online tools to help employers substitute safer chemicals and use more protective exposure limits on a voluntary basis.

Some employers have been using exposure limits that are more protective than OSHA's as a matter of good practice or by agreement in union contracts, Jim Frederick, United Steelworkers' assistant director for safety and health, told Bloomberg BNA.

But Frederick said OSHA-enforced limits create a level playing field for employers, since competing businesses all have to make the investments to meet the same limit, and for workers, who would be afforded the same degree of protection no matter where they work.

OSHA has permissible exposure limits for various forms of about 300 chemicals, established in 1971, that are based on science from the 1950s and 1960s. In 1989, the agency issued a rule that revised 212 existing limits and established 164 new ones. But that rule faced a legal challenge from industry, which said the limits were too stringent, and from labor, which said some were too weak.

The agency resumed enforcing the 1971 limits.

Should the agency decide to move forward with rulemaking on updating the exposure limits, it would be a long process that would probably require the commitment of whoever takes over the White House after the 2016 presidential elections. The Government Accountability Office found OSHA rulemaking took an average of more than seven years.

Source: Bloomberg This article has been edited for length.

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