HHS styrene ruling: Bad science, bad for the composites industry

Tom Hedger, president of Magnum Venus Plastech (Clearwater, Fla.) and a board member of the the American Composites Manufacturers Assn. (ACMA, Arlington, Va.) joins the chorus of disapprovval that has greeted U.S Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' approval of styrene's classification as a likely carcinogen.

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The composites industry has expanded into almost every end market in the United States. It is no longer just tub-and-shower manufacturers, boatmakers or hot tub/pool molders. Composites now play a significant role in wind energy development, critical infrastructure (trenchless pipe technology, bridges and transmission cables, to name a few), aerospace and automotive manufacturing, bio-gas plant construction, emission scrubbers in coal-fired electric power plants, natural gas exploration equipment, deepsea oil platforms and undersea umbilicals, sports and recreational equipment (tennis racquets, skis and snowboards, surfboards, wakeboards vaulting poles, and much more) ... and the list could go on and on.

Composites manufacturing requires many components, not the least of which are the many available fiber reinforcements. But functionally, a composite is truly reliant, of course, on the contribution made by its polymer resin component. There's one drawback, however, to manufacturing with most resins: styrene emissions.

For the past decade or more, composites equipment manufacturers have worked to develop systems and processes that will reduce emissions of this critical diluent during production. During that time, many new innovations, such as closed molding, have enabled manufacturers to significantly reduce overall styrene emissions in the workplace.

However, over the course of the past few years, there has been a concerted effort in the U.S. to clarify the findings from the National Toxicology Program (NTP) and the Report on Carcinogens (RoC) that suggests styrene should be listed as a “reasonably known carcinogen.” Despite more than 100 other studies conducted by respected scientists from the European Union, Harvard Medical School and other organizations — all of which indicated styrene is not carcinogenic* — U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently approved the 12th RoC. This decision will be catastrophic for the thousands of small businesses across the country that use composite materials in their manufacturing processes and to the retail businesses that sell those composite products.

On Feb. 9, 2009, President Obama gave a speech at a motorhome manufacturer in Elkhart, Ind., in which he spoke of restoring prosperity to that badly hit business sector. He said, “We’re talking about folks who’ve lost their livelihoods, and don’t know what will take its place .... I promised you, if elected president, I would do everything I could to help this community recover .... I intend to keep that promise.” Unfortunately, Secretary Sebelius’s decision to ignore hundreds of studies that conclude that styrene is not carcinogenic, and instead accept the faulty conclusions of the single study that says it is, will make it impossible for President Obama to keep that promise.

This single action by Secretary Sebelius is likely to set into motion a chain of events that will result in enormous burdens. There will be a halt in clean-energy initiatives, such as wind, while new production methods are explored. It will result in class-action lawsuits, massive job losses in composites manufacturing and retail sales and the migration of manufacturing to more “friendly” nations.

There has been a concentrated effort by the composites industry’s leading representatives and business owners, such as me, to meet with elected officials on this issue. I personally made multiple trips to Washington, D.C., to meet with elected officials from Washington state, including Senator Maria Cantwell, Senator Patty Murray, Representative Adam Smith and Representative Dave Reichert. For each legislator, I had only one request: contact HHS and ask Secretary Sebelius to reconsider the science, request a National Academy of Sciences review and let the science represent itself. If they followed through on this request, it fell on deaf ears. The HHS has failed in its job, the Obama Administration has failed in its job to prevent job-killing decisions such as this and, worst of all, my local elected officials have failed.

Job creation is not being “stimulated” by the government throwing more money at the problem. It is being stifled by government and its failure to understand that small business is the job-creation machine of America. It is truly unfortunate that many people will be forced to suffer because one governmental department has failed to do its due diligence and appears to be following an agenda on this issue. This irresponsible action by HHS will have a devastating effect on American businesses and jobs.

*"Epidemiologic Study of Styrene and Cancer: A Review of the Literature," JOEM, Vol. 51, Nov. 11, 2009, American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.