California takes action to protect workers from lung disease; national action needed

Twelve years ago, Dr. Allen Parmet, a Kansas City physician, diagnosed several patients who worked at a microwave popcorn packaging plant with bronchiolitis obliterans, a debilitating and sometimes deadly lung disease. Three of the patients were so ill, they needed lung transplants. Dr. Parmet suspected that there may be a health hazard at the plant and reported his suspicions.

After inspecting the plant, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Heath found that high levels of diacetyl, a chemical used in the production of food flavorings like the butter flavor in microwave popcorn, was the culprit. In all, ten workers  or former workers at the plant were found to have bronchiolitis obliterans, and 20 to 30 current or former workers were suspected of having a less serious lung disease.

NIOSH investigated more microwave popcorn plants and by 2006 found that more than 200 workers exposed to diacetyl in popcorn plants had contracted bronchiolitis obliterans; three had died. And the problem wasn’t limited to just popcorn workers.

“We’ve got cases of bronchiolitis obliterans among workers in other plants that use flavoring and in plants that make the flavorings,” NIOSH’s Dr. Kathleen Kreiss told the Baltimore Sun.  At the time about 8,000 workers in the food processing industry worked at plants that used  diacetyl and other food flavoring chemicals.

Twelve years after Dr. Parmet suspected that workers were being exposed to a toxic chemical on the job, regulations have finally been issued that regulate the use of diacetyl and other food flavoring chemicals. But the regulations protect only a fraction of the 8,000 food processing workers because they only apply to the State of California.

For years, the United Food and Commercial Workers and Teamsters have been trying to get action at the federal level to protect food processing workers. “Three workers have died and hundreds of others seriously injured,” said Jackie Nowell, UFCW Safety & Health Director in 2006. “It’s time for action. We will not let food processing workers continue to be the canaries in the coal mine while waiting for the industry to regulate itself.”

The unions urged OSHA take action to regulate or reduce the use of diacetyl, but according to the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP), OSHA’s response was “trivial.” In 2002, OSHA entered into an agreement establishing an alliance” with the Popcorn Board, the trade association representing microwave popcorn manufacturers.

As a result of the alliance, the board agreed to share information about health risks of diacetyl and other food flavoring chemicals with popcorn manufacturers and to inform them of steps that could be taken to reduce the risk to workers.

The information was disseminated, but there was no mechanism to ensure that companies implemented the recommendation and the disseminated information didn’t have much impact. By 2006, more than 150 lawsuits had been filed by workers with lung diseases against companies that make microwave popcorn. One worker, Francisco Herrera told the Baltimore Sun his story. He worked in a flavoring plant and became ill with  bronchiolitis obliterans in 2003. By 2006,  bronchiolitis obliterans had destroyed 70 percent of his lung capacity, and he needed a lung transplant.

In 2007, a bill requiring the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue regulations regarding the safe use of diacetyl passed in the US House but was lobbied to death in the Senate by the US Chamber of Commerce.

In 2006, the UFCW and California AFL-CIO petitioned California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue regulations,  which California’s OSHA did in 2010. The regulations establish standards for diacetyl’s use, prescribes the safety gear that must be worn by workers handling the chemical, and requires companies to provide training and medical surveillance for workers.

But California’s 20 flavoring plants are only a fraction of the US’s food flavoring industry. Workers in the other 49 states have very little if any protection from diacetyl. In January, the US OSHA expanded its “National Emphasis Program,” which sets guidelines for microwave popcorn worker plants, but the guidelines don’t set permissible exposure levels and aren’t legally binding.

Five years ago, Teamster Safety and Health Director Lamont Byrd said, “The science is clear. Such illnesses and fatalities are avoidable and therefore, inexcusable. An (OSHA) Emergency Standard is necessary to prevent the suffering and death of additional workers who will get sick during the time it would take for OSHA to set a Permanent Standard.” The same hold true today.

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