House Passes Diacetyl Bill

By a vote of 260 to 154, the U.S. House of Representatives on Sept. 26 approved legislation that would force OSHA to develop interim standards limiting worker exposure to the artificial flavoring diacetyl. Exposure to diacetyl has been linked to a debilitating, irreversible lung disease found among workers in food processing plants and microwave popcorn factories.

Workers exposed to the chemical and the labor organizations have been campaigning for the past year to get OSHA and Congress to take action in the matter. H.R. 2693, "Popcorn Workers Lung Disease Prevention Act," sponsored by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., requires OSHA to issue within 90 days an interim final standard to minimize workers’ exposure to diacetyl in popcorn and flavor manufacturing plants. If the bill becomes law, the agency would have to issue a final rule covering all workplaces where workers are exposed to diacetyl within 2 years.

The bill also directs the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to conduct a study to determine the potential exposure hazards of diacetyl and associated chemicals used in the production of microwave popcorn.

“Seven years after the first cases of popcorn lung were identified, it is stunning that OSHA has failed to protect American workers from this horrible disease,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. “...This legislation is critical to stop the delays in protecting workers from this serious workplace hazard.”

“It’s a travesty that OSHA has done nothing to regulate this chemical, while workers have fallen seriously ill and some have actually died,” Woolsey said. “That’s why it’s time for Congress to act to keep workers healthy and safe. Passing this important legislation is a step in the right direction.”

OSHA Continues to Seek Evidence

On Sept. 25, OSHA announced it would initiate a rulemaking under section 6(b) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, as well as distribute a bulletin and a guidance that would inform workers and employers about the health hazards associated with being exposed to diacetyl as well as other butter flavorings in microwave popcorn. On Sept. 26, the agency announced a stakeholder meeting would be scheduled on Oct. 17, which would give the public an opportunity to share their concerns about diacetyl exposure.

Despite its actions, OSHA still is reluctant to name diacetyl as the culprit of the disease bronchiolitis obliterans or “popcorn lung,” which has plagued workers in microwave popcorn plants since the late 1990s, when NIOSH identified cases of popcorn lung among workers in popcorn plants and flavor manufacturing plants exposed to diacetyl.

In the Sept. 26 Federal Register notice, the agency said it was "not aware of any new cases of serious airways disease consistent with bronchiolitis obliterans among microwave popcorn manufacturing employees since 2003."

"There are likely to be thousands of worksites where such flavorings are used," the notice says, "and OSHA is seeking information on the nature of the flavoring formulations used, the processes in which they are used, the extent there is employee exposure, and the use and effectiveness of control measures. The available evidence for disease in this industry is sparse."

Byrd: OSHA Actions “Window Dressing”

Lamont Byrd, director of the Teamsters Union Safety and Health Department, called OSHA's steps to beginning the rulemaking process on diacetyl to only be a “window dressing.”

“After a year of inactivity following a petition to promulgate an ETS [emergency temporary standard], OSHA decides to convene a meeting of the stakeholders,” Byrd said. “While the agency holds these meaningless meetings, workers, including our members, will continue to be exposed to this dangerous chemical.”

The Bush administration, however, has been vocal about its opposition. In a statement, the White House said the bill would require OSHA to publish a standard that was “premature” and “would not allow OSHA sufficient time to gather and analyze the kind of evidence and information needed to ensure the promulgation of a standard that adequately protects workers.”

Despite opposition from the Labor Department and the Bush administration for the legislation, microwave popcorn manufacturers have not taken any chances and many have eliminated diacetyl from their products. A recent report of a man who came down with the life-threatening lung disease after eating several bags of butter-flavored microwave popcorn on a daily basis has helped spur manufacturers to eliminate the flavoring.

Indianapolis-based popcorn manufacturer Weaver Popcorn Co. Inc. became the first microwave popcorn brand to eliminate the flavoring agent from its Pop Weaver microwave popcorn products, in part to address consumers' concerns.

ConAgra Foods Inc., maker of Orville Redenbacher brand, said it would drop diacetyl from its popcorn brand over the next year.

Dozens of popcorn workers in several states – including Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin – have filed lawsuits against diacetyl manufacturers. The lawsuits, claiming injury from breathing diacetyl, have resulted in awards of up to $20 million.

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