OSHA Urged to Issue Worker Safety Standard for Popcorn Flavoring

Two major labor unions and several dozen scientists and safety and health experts are petitioning the Department of Labor and OSHA to immediately issue an emergency temporary standard to protect workers who are exposed to diacetyl, a common ingredient in microwave popcorn.

Representatives from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, in a July 26 phone conference, said OSHA has not adequately responded to "compelling scientific evidence" indicating exposure to diacetyl can cause bronchiolitis obliterans otherwise known as "popcorn lung disease."

"This is the time for OSHA to act," UFCW Safety and Health Director Jackie Nowell said. "We will not let food processing workers continue to be the canaries in the coal mine while waiting for the industry to regulate itself."

It is not clear whether consumers are at risk from exposure to diacetyl, but both unions contend workers who deal with high concentrations of the flavoring chemical are at risk of developing serious and irreversible lung damage.

Diacetyl also is used in the production of pastries, frozen foods, candies and dog food.

Byrd: Quick Action Needed

According to Lamont Byrd, safety and health director for the Teamsters, the two unions requested an emergency temporary standard because popcorn plants and other industries at risk have not responded to alerts sent by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and recent studies confirming the dangers of diacetyl.

Byrd said he hoped a regulatory mandate would drive companies to pay attention to their warnings.

"An emergency standard is necessary to prevent the suffering and death of the additional workers who will get sick during the time it would take for OSHA to set a permanent standard," he explained.

He also added it was unrealistic to "expect employers to take voluntary steps to protect exposure to its workers."

According to Ruth McCully, OSHA's director of the Directorate for Science, Technology and Medicine, a federal safety and health bulletin is pending. But educational brochures with recommendations on safety measures such as eye and hand protection as well as environmental monitoring have been made available to popcorn makers since October 2002, McCully said.

She also said the agency will study the petition closely.

"It is still not clear if diacetyl is the sole causative agent of respiratory problems," she said. "It is important to focus on the control of the processes."

The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, a trade group, sent a statement that said the industry was moving aggressively to address concerns by conducting safety workshops. In addition, the industry group says it would "support any appropriate action that is based on sound science, including the establishment of a [permissible exposure limit] that will protect workers."

"Failure of the Public Health Regulatory System"

The unions' petition was accompanied by a letter from 42 of the nation's leading occupational safety scientists, including a former OSHA director and five former top officials from OSHA, EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services, urging Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to limit workers' exposure to diacetyl.

David Michaels of George Washington University's School of Public Health and one of the 42 scientists who signed the letter said the evidence alone should motivate OSHA to issue the standard as quickly as possible.

"This is a tragic example of the failure of the public health regulatory system," he said.

UFCW and the Teamsters Union stipulates in the petition that the Labor department and OSHA should:

  • Require employers to control airborne exposure to diacetyl and ensure all employees who are exposed to a certain airborne level of the chemical are provided with air-purifying respirators. The safety of these workers would be additionally monitored through medical surveillance and regular consultations.
  • Issue a bulletin to all employers and employees potentially exposed to diacetyl outlining the dangers of the chemical.
  • Conduct inspections and begin rulemaking proceedings to establish a permanent standard that will protect workers from exposure to all flavorings.

Concerns Growing Since 2000

Concerns over diacetyl have been growing since 2000, when NIOSH began investigating reports of several workers with the lung disease at a Gilster-Mary Lee microwave popcorn plant in Jasper, Mo. Investigators found workers at the plant had chronic coughs and shortness of breath at more than twice the normal rate.

One of workers of the plant, Ed Penell, joined several dozen other current and former workers in a lawsuit against the plant. Penell and the makers of the butter flavoring International Flavor and Fragrances Inc. and its subsidiary, Bush Boake Allen settled the lawsuit out of court, but Penell said he had hoped that the government would have taken action and passed regulation as a result.

Penell, who is on a waiting list for a lung transplant, claims he and the others had no idea what they were exposed to.

"My lungs are shot," he said.

In an April 1, 2005, article, Occupationalhazards.com reported a jury awarded $15 million in damages to another former Gilster-Mary Lee employee Richard Brand who sued International Flavor and Fragrances Inc. and Bush Boake Allen on the grounds that he developed bronchiolitis obliterans from exposure to diacetyl. In 2004, a jury awarded $20 million in damages to Eric Peoples, another former Gilster-Mary Lee employee who claims his lungs were damaged by breathing in diacetyl.

Dr. Allen Parmat, a Kansas City occupational physician who diagnosed the first Jasper lung cases in 2000, said there is no reason for another person to get sick, as NIOSH has listed precautions both employees and employers can take.

"We know how to stop it," he said. "There's no reason for another person to get sick."

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