Lawmakers Press Chao to Take Action on Popcorn Flavoring

Three House legislators are urging the Department of Labor to issue regulations that would better protect workers at companies that use a food-flavoring agent known to cause a severe and often fatal lung disease known as "popcorn lung disease."

Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., Major Owens, D-N.Y., and Hilda Solis, D-Calif., sent a letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao asking her to issue emergency safety rules for employees who work with the chemical diacetyl, which is used not only in popcorn flavoring but also in a range of consumer food products such as candy, frozen food and dog food.

"This is a frightening disease that has sickened or killed workers from coast to coast," said Miller, the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "Under the Bush administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has knowingly refused to use its authority to crack down on this problem in food manufacturing plants all over the country."

In the letter to Chao, the lawmakers fault OSHA for not acting in response to findings from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which concluded exposure to diacetyl in the workplace can lead to bronchiolitis obliterans (popcorn lung disease), a disease that can destroy the lungs even of a young and healthy worker and that cannot be reversed.

At least 200 workers nationwide have reportedly become sick with popcorn lung disease as a result of being exposed to diacetyl and at least three have died, according to NIOSH.

The lawmakers ask Chao to immediately issue emergency rules to limit diacetyl exposure among workers. The letter cites a number of NIOSH recommendations for accomplishing this goal, which include:

  • Substituting less-toxic ingredients for hazardous flavorings;
  • Using engineering controls such as closed production systems;
  • Using administrative controls that isolate and restrict access to areas where flavorings are handled;
  • Educating management and workers about the risks of hazardous exposures;
  • Providing appropriate personal protective equipment including NIOSH-certified half-mask, negative-pressure respirators;
  • Monitoring all exposures through routine air sampling;
  • Establishing a comprehensive health-monitoring program for workers, which would include periodic testing of lung function as well as rigorous surveillance and disease reporting procedures.

"Immediate action is essential to prevent new outbreaks of bronchiolitis obliterans and safeguard workers in a wide range of plants that manufacture or use synthetic butter flavoring," the lawmakers said in the letter.

The letter follows a petition filed by the United Food Workers and Commercial Workers Union (UCFW) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters asking OSHA for immediate action.

Ruth McCully, OSHA's director of the Directorate for Science, Technology and Medicine, said last week that the agency would study the petition closely. (See article: "OSHA Urged to Issue Worker Safety Standard for Popcorn Flavoring").

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