House Labor Committee Approves Diacetyl Bill

June 21, 2007
In a bipartisan voice vote, the House Education and Labor Committee passed legislation that would impel OSHA to promulgate a standard to protect workers from exposure to the popcorn-flavoring agent diacetyl – on the condition that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conduct studies on other food-flavoring agents as well.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., on June 13 introduced the Popcorn Workers Lung Disease Prevention Act (H.R. 2693), which, if signed, would require OSHA to issue an interim final standard mandating engineering controls, work practice controls and respiratory protection to minimize workers' exposure to diacetyl. The legislation would apply to all locations in the flavoring manufacturing industry that make, use, handle or process diacetyl and to all microwave popcorn production and packaging establishments that use diacetyl-containing flavors in the manufacture of microwave popcorn.

With the committee passage of the bill – which still must pass muster with the House and Senate – Woolsey took advantage of the opportunity to admonish OSHA for failing to issue even an informational bulletin alerting workers to the potential hazards of diacetyl.

“What’s troubling is that if OSHA had taken action in a timely manner, we would not need to pass a bill to require OSHA to do something that it should have done a long time ago,” said Woolsey, who is chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. “While OSHA has ignored the warnings of NIOSH and others concerning this devastating disease, workers have become sick and disabled, and several have died, all in an astonishingly short period of time. That’s why this legislation is so important – it will save lives. I am thankful that the committee has chosen to pass my legislation and I look forward to bringing it to the floor.”

Bill Faced Republican Opposition

Woolsey's bill was met with strong opposition from Republican members of the House committee.

Ranking committee member Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., initially introduced an amendment to the legislation, emphasizing that he didn't believe the bill would accomplish the goal of eliminating risk for workers because the bill would require OSHA to issue a standard with little or no available science.

“If [diacetyl] were to be replaced with another chemical and workers continued to fall ill, there would be no evidence to see if that agent is what was making workers sick,” Wilson said.

In Wilson's amendment, NIOSH would be required to conduct studies on other flavoring components to determine if diacetyl is the true and only cause of bronchiolitis obliterans, or “popcorn lung,” a potentially fatal lung disease. In addition, the agency would need to come up with the exposure levels necessary to set a permissible exposure limit. Only then would OSHA be required to issue a standard.

In his opening statement, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., supported Wilson's amendment by stating that there is “no clear scientific evidence that diacetyl alone causes popcorn lung disease,” which echoed testimony given by OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke Jr. during an April 24 hearing on the effectiveness of OSHA protections. During the April 24 hearing, Foulke called diacetyl “a substance of suspicion.” (For more information, read “Lawmakers: OSHA Standard Needed for Diacetyl.”)

McKeon explained that although NIOSH in 2000 investigated a popcorn plant in Missouri – and, as a result, in 2002 issued a report explaining that there was a strong relationship between the estimated cumulative exposure to diacetyl and the excess rates of lung disease and lung abnormalities – the agency had noted that “at this time, insufficient data exist on which to base workplace exposure standards or recommended exposure limits for butter flavorings.”

“Until [NIOSH] draws any conclusions, however, it is an open question as to whether diacetyl alone is to blame or whether the chemical, in combination with other agents, places workers at risk,” McKeon said.

Wilson's Amendment Withdrawn

After the committee voted on the bill, Wilson moved to withdraw his amendment – with the stipulation that some of the language and intent in his amendment be incorporated into the bill. Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., said that the House majority and minority leaders will continue discussions on incorporating Wilson's language from his amendment into the bill.

However, Miller added that it is important that the bill be signed into law, as it would force OSHA to take decisive action.

“Seven years after the first cases of popcorn lung were identified, it is stunning that OSHA has failed to issue a standard protecting American workers from exposure to diacetyl,” Miller said. “The cost of the Bush administration’s failure to act can be measured in the number of workers who have avoidably grown ill or died. It’s time to stop the delays in protecting workers from this serious workplace hazard.”

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