Ground to dust: fracking, silicosis and the politics of public health

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Silica dust is created through construction, mining and other industries that grind down rock, concrete, masonry and sand. Over-exposure to the dust causes an irreversible scarring of the lungs called silicosis. Approximately 2.2 million American workers are exposed to this hazard, and this contributed to the death of 1,437 Americans from silicosis between 2001 and 2010.

It also leads to other diseases. The U.K. Health and Safety Executive estimates that around 600 British people die each year from lung cancer associated with silica dust exposure.

Public health experts have long known about the dangers of airborne silica. In 1938, the U.S. Department of Labor created an informational video calling jackhammers “widow-makers” due to the harmful dust they create. In 1949, the U.K. significantly curtailed the use of sandblasting, and several other European countries followed suit .

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OSHA put silica on its regulatory agenda in 1997 under President Clinton. After many years, study after study and numerous bureaucratic delays, OSHA finally proposed a standard in 2013, and held extensive public hearings in 2014. OSHA estimates that the new standard will save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis per year once its full effects are realized.

But for some, eighteen years of study just isn’t enough. On June 25, North Dakota Senator John Hoeven successfully attached a provision to a government funding bill that would delay this standard becoming law.

That’s bad news for workers like Eddie Mallon, who worked as a sandhog for 44 years. He has silicosis, and he warns that larger drilling equipment creates more dust exposure for workers. “I am very concerned that the young workers coming into our business today will have more respiratory health problems than even we experienced unless these exposures are better controlled,” he testified at the 2014 hearings.

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So why would this particular senator care so much about silica dust? Silica sand is used in fracking, and public health experts are increasingly concerned about its impact on those who work in the industry.

Recent field studies conducted by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that nearly 80 percent of the samples it took at fracking sites showed unsafe levels of airborne silica.

And who are the top three contributors to this particular senator’s campaign coffers since 2009? Oil and gas company executives and political action committees. Murray Energy, NextEra Energy and Xcel Energy lead the list. All told, the oil and gas industry has given $334,387 to his campaign committee, while the mining industry kicked in with $196,756.

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Senator Hoeven is only the latest elected official to throw an obstacle in the path of an updated silica standard. The Obama administration delayed seeking comment on a proposed change for more than two years.

OSHA was on track to finalize a standard in 2016. But if the industry gets its way, it won’t be agreed next year, or the year after that. Politicians will continue to call for study after study. And people will continue to die or get sick.

No legislature should interfere in this way with science-based public health decisions. A law that has been repeatedly delayed at the cost of thousands of lives shouldn’t be held up any longer. The Obama administration should oppose the silica rider, and Congress should take it off the table.

An extract from Michael Halpern’s article: Michael Halpern (@halpsci) is manager of strategy and innovation for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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