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MANAGING BEST PRACTICES: Track the public view on toxic chemicals

July 7, 2010
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You should be aware the public’s attention on toxic chemicals is rising. USA Today’s ongoing investigative reports on “Toxic Air and America’s Schools” has covered more of the newspaper’s printed pages than any other single topic during the past year. CNN’s year-long investigation and Special Report “Toxic America” provided considerable televised prime-time to the topic this past June. These are two key examples among many others.

Underestimated?

The theme of toxic chemicals appears to be that their concerns have been underestimated. In April 2010 the President’s Cancer Panel released the report Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now. The report notes “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.” In May 2010 NIOSH released publication 2010-145 on Work Related Cancer. The publication used similar language stating that about four percent of cancer deaths “underestimate the true burden of occupational cancer.”

We should not underestimate the public’s concern on toxic chemicals. But getting the true pulse on the public’s perception and value about toxic chemicals is tricky. The public’s views on toxic chemicals may change depending who conducts a survey or interview.

National conversation

A mostly unfiltered public view on toxic chemicals can be found at the National Conversation on Public Health and Chemical Exposure at http://www.atsdr. cdc.gov/nationalconversation/index.html.

ATSDR and CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health along with project partners that include the American Public Health Association, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, the National Association of County and City Health Officials and RESOLVE, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the effective use of consensus building in public decision making, launched the National Conversation project about two years ago. Online dialog with moderators and the public on various aspects of toxic chemicals is ongoing. What are the best practices to prevent harmful chemical exposures? See the public’s suggestions at http://www.webdialogues.net/cs/ nationalconversation-vision-discussions/view/dfp/907.

Following social media such a Facebook, Twitter and others to see public comments on toxic chemicals may seem unfiltered but everyone may use these sources. Comments may not be a public view but rather could come from an activist organization or industry trade representative.

Mapping

The ease of adding online search and map capability for public exposure to toxic chemicals has upped the ante, too. USA Today and CNN both include search and maps for various public exposures to chemicals. The US..’s National Library of Medicine TOXMAP® Environmental Health e-Maps (http://toxmap.nlm.nih. gov/toxmap/main/index.jsp) is a very robust site and probably the best known example of these types of maps. The maps make the issue local and personal.

Database searches

The public’s view of toxic chemicals is also enhanced by an individual’s opportunity to search online databases to identify, analyze, and evaluate chemical exposures. OSHA’s Chemical Exposure Health Data (http://www.osha.gov/opengov/healthsamples. html) is a new database that you should begin to use. The database includes all of OSHA’s IH sampling data dating back to 1984. You may search the database in several ways, by establishment or individual chemical, for example.

BP is getting bashed in the news media now. Do you think BP may routinely overexpose their workers to chemicals? Run a search to find out. Industry-wide, were workers routinely overexposed to asbestos in 2009-2010? Again, a search at the database will provide some answers.

Updates

Keeping updated on what’s happening, particularly with public perception on toxic chemicals, may be a daunting task. Periodic online news feeds from trade publications such as this magazine are very helpful. With regard to chemicals, the American Chemistry Council’s ACC SmartBrief (http://www.americanchemistry. com) provides a daily email brief on top stories that impact the chemical industry.

What’s the objective?

Risk management on chemicals should extend beyond the simple question of whether your organization is compliant with current regulations. Look at potential future compliance and competitive advantages integrated across employee, consumer, and public issues from both local and global perspectives.

ISO 31000:2009 should be your broad guide to address chemical risk management. The importance of ERM in organizations is growing as a read of the S&P corporate credit ratings link above helps demonstrate. As long as you remain an EHS pro you will deal with chemicals in some manner.

As a personal advantage, the more you learn about the public’s perceptions on chemicals, the better able you will be to communicate risks both within and outside of your organization.

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Recent Articles by Dan Markiewicz, MS, CIH, CSP, CHMM

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