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BUSINESS PULSE: A SPECIAL REPORT : SAFETY : Health Hazards Lurk Even In 'Clean' Shops


Kathy O'Gorman didn't consider her workplace very hazardous. As a proofreader at Pacific Volt in Anaheim, she wasn't using heavy machinery or handling industrial chemicals, and everything around her seemed modern and clean.

But shortly after she started the job, she began to have persistent flu symptoms, chronic fatigue and irregular menstrual cycles. It wasn't until a noxious odor permeated her workplace one day that she made any connection between her job and illness. She soon discovered that other workers were suffering similar symptoms.

O'Gorman and several of her colleagues are convinced their ills result from exposure to chemicals in the cleansers, adhesives and other products used at the graphics arts company, though they haven't yet been able to prove it.

An inspection by the California Occupational Safety and Health Department found that Pacific Volt, which helps produce Pacific Bell's Yellow Pages, had failed to properly inform workers of possible hazards, but didn't find illegally high levels of chemicals in the air.

Company Controller Henry Arnold would not comment on specific cases in light of outstanding worker compensation claims, but said Pacific Volt "is committed to providing a safe working environment," and had tested air quality in response to employee complaints.

That such a conflict could arise at all, however, illustrates the fact that no workplace, no matter how innocuous it might appear, can be considered exempt from the problems of chemical exposure. Virtually every business uses some of the approximately 1,000 chemicals that Cal/OSHA considers hazardous, and new information is constantly emerging about possible adverse health effects of substances once considered harmless.

"I don't think you can say that any workplace is necessarily safe," said Mark Levin, an industrial hygienist at UCLA's Occupational Health Center. "We can't afford to make that kind of assumption."

And that assumption may be made far too often in Orange County, dominated as it is by white-collar jobs and "clean" industries. The Times Orange County Poll indicates that 15% of all local workers worry about exposure to toxic chemicals on the job. But experts say the number who could be at risk is probably higher.

The problem of hazardous substances in the workplace embraces a broad array of issues, ranging from indoor air pollution in office buildings to solvent exposure in auto-body shops to the acute danger posed by toxic substances such as lead that are used in manufacturing processes. In many cases, the health issues are poorly understood, and enforcement of regulations limiting exposure to many harmful substances is far from adequate.

Troubling questions remain even for commonly used materials whose dangers are well-documented. Lead, for example, is known to cause brain damage, and federal and state occupational safety laws set strict limits on lead levels in the workplace. But those levels were recently reduced in response to new evidence indicating that very low levels of lead exposure can be dangerous.

Even allowable levels of lead, moreover, can cause fetal injury and other reproductive problems. Johnson Controls Inc. is so concerned about this issue that it refuses to hire women of child-bearing age at its battery manufacturing plant in Fullerton--a policy that was recently overturned by an appeals court as discriminatory.

And while a large company such as Johnson Controls is likely to adhere closely to safety and health codes, the same cannot be said for many small businesses--such as radiator repair shops and metal-plating companies--that use significant amounts of lead.

"The smaller the workplace, the more likely it is to be hazardous," noted John Peters, director of occupational and environmental medicine at USC Medical School. "Small companies don't have the money or the expertise" to cope with the problems.

This problem is perhaps even more acute in industries where the toxicity of the chemicals is less obvious. Chemical solvents used in many paints, varnishes and dry-cleaning fluids, for example, are known to cause cancer in animals, and produce liver problems and central nervous system damage in humans who are exposed to very large amounts.

These substances are heavily used in small businesses ranging from the local cleaners to the corner auto-body shop--locations where OSHA inspectors rarely tread. The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which is concerned about releases of many of these same substances, is more likely to get involved.

"If all the laws were enforced, we'd be in pretty good shape," said Peters. "But we're not doing enough monitoring, and there's not enough teeth in the enforcement."

Moreover, the long-term health effects of prolonged exposure to low levels of many commonly used chemicals--especially solvents used as cleaners--are poorly understood, as are the compounding effects of exposure to multiple chemicals.

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