Limits Sought on Worker Exposure to Flavor Agent

Times Staff Writer

Emergency safety standards are needed to counter a widening outbreak of lung disease among workers exposed to a common ingredient in microwave popcorn, health experts and labor unions said Tuesday.

The Teamsters and United Food and Commercial Workers plan to file an emergency petition today demanding that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration set exposure limits for diacetyl, a flavoring agent used in the manufacture of artificial popcorn butter, dog food and other products.

Diacetyl has been linked to bronchiolitis obliterans, an irreversible lung disease that has afflicted scores of workers at popcorn factories and other work sites and killed at least three people in the last few years. Consumers are not believed to be at risk because they are exposed to far lower amounts of the chemical than plant workers are.

According to the unions, the Bush administration has not acted quickly enough to stop exposure, resulting in increased health risks for thousands of workers in the multibillion-dollar flavoring industry.


“The science is there, but these agencies are sitting on their hands,” said David Michaels, a research professor in George Washington University’s environmental and occupational health department who supports the petition. “Something needs to be done.”

OSHA officials declined to comment on the petition Tuesday, but in the past the agency has indicated that workplace protections are sufficient. OSHA requires employers to provide employees “appropriate information regarding any chemicals that meet the definition of ‘health hazard,’ ” said a spokesman, who insisted on anonymity as part of department policy.

The agency has no limits for worker exposure to diacetyl.

The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Assn., a trade group, said the industry was moving aggressively to address concerns by conducting safety workshops. Executive Director Glenn Roberts said the group would support a safety exposure standard as long as it was based on “sound science.”

He said the association would “continue to vigorously support any appropriate action that will protect workers in flavor and food manufacturing.”

Concerns over diacetyl have been growing since 2000, when the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health began investigating reports of several workers with the lung disease at a popcorn plant in Jasper, Mo.

Investigators found that workers at the plant had chronic coughs and shortness of breath at more than twice the normal rate. The most severely affected had to have lung transplants.

The problem was initially believed confined to popcorn plants, where workers dumped out bags of diacetyl powder. But this spring, California health experts reported that two workers at plants that made flavorings for dog food and other products had also become ill. A third case is being investigated.

Dr. Philip Harber, chief of the division of occupational and environmental medicine at UCLA’s medical school, said the lung capacity in the two patients was 18% to 28% of normal. The cases, he said, were a warning sign that workers in other flavoring-related industries who have been exposed to diacetyl may suffer from the lung disease.

“There’s no doubt that there are other cases,” Harber said.

In December 2003, the occupational safety and health institute issued an alert to more than 4,000 companies using the flavoring agent, warning of the danger and urging mitigation measures. Among the recommendations were using alternatives to diacetyl and improving ventilation.

But union leaders say companies have not followed the recommendations, which do not have the force of law. Jackie Nowell, director of occupational safety and health for the food workers union, said the administration needed to issue an enforceable standard to protect workers.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health has worked with the flavoring industry to address the problem, said Len Welsh, acting chief of the agency, which is overseeing a plan in which companies pay a medical research center chosen by the industry to conduct a health and safety screening.

The agency plans to inspect each of the estimated 20 to 25 flavoring companies in California to make sure they comply with safety standards, Welsh said. The agency has fined one company and has begun investigations of two others.