The pages of this newsletter are usually devoted to articles about toxic substances either no longer commonly used or which are highly regulated. Although substances like asbestos no longer pose such widespread hazards in the work place as they did some thirty years ago, today there are many highly toxic substances still used in factories and at construction sites causing serious injuries to workers here and abroad. One such substance is a chemical known as n-propyl bromide, or nPB. This chemical causes neurological damage and infertility, even when inhaled in low concentrations over prolonged periods of time.

Neurological damage is generally irreversible and expresses itself in staggered gait, numb hands and feet and spinal pain, symptoms which can lead to permanent disability. The chemical nPB is used by workers in the manufacture of high-tech electronics, in auto body shops and in dry cleaners.  As recently reported in a lengthy article appearing in The New York Times, nPB is an ingredient in the glue used to assemble cushions for the furniture industry.

The story of how nPB was used by workers at Royale Comfort Seating in North Carolina is a stunning indictment of the indifference of the company’s owners and managers, who placed profits above the health of their employees.  Workers at Royale Comfort Seating have been exposed to dangerous levels of glue fumes containing nPB. The company could have switched to a safer more expensive glue but decided not to because the switch would have increased the cost of each cushion, thus exposing Royale Comfort to foreign competition.

As pointed out by the New York Times article, although OSHA has set standards with exposure limits for 16 substances encountered in the workplace, including asbestos, benzene, lead and arsenic, there are tens of thousands of dangerous substances handled by workers every day that remain largely unregulated.

Even in the presence of up to date ventilation systems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one cannot count on industry to use glues containing nPB in a manner that would protect human health.  What then of the responsibility of manufacturers who make and sell such dangerous products?  Some manufacturers of nPB have apparently discontinued sales, while at least one other manufacturer has taken the position that it has fulfilled its obligations by telling its customers to provide their workers with better protections or to stop using the glue.  Is this an adequate response under circumstances where there are other, safer alternatives for gluing cushions together? Or is it just another evasion of responsibility by a manufacturer more interested in making a profit than in the health of its customers and their employees?