OSHA? No.Â It’sÂ Andrew SchneiderÂ and his colleagues at theÂ Seattle Post-Intelligencer.Â In “Flavoring Additive Puts Professional Cooks at Risk,” the reporter describes a study commissioned by the newspaper to determine how much of the butter-flavoring agent diacetyl becomes airborne when used in a restaurant cook’s work setting.Â Exposure toÂ diacetyl is associated with the severe lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans in microwave popcorn plant workersÂ and others, yet Schneider writes:
“Government indifference to the possible threat posed by breathing diacetyl is epidemic.Â The CPSC repeatedly has said it’s not its problem.Â For at least three years theÂ FDA has been ignoring the question and only now, almost eight years after the first solid links between diacetyl and workers, has OSHAÂ said it will attempt to set standards for worker exposure, and this is only after repeated hammering by unions and Congress.”
Frankly, we should be exasperated by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s study.Â We’ve come to rely onÂ a newspaper to do our public health investigations??
Don’t get me wrong, I have tremendous respect forÂ Andrew Schneider and his stellar reporting, which exposed theÂ health disasterÂ created by WR Grace in Libby, Montana.Â Â He also made exceptional contributions to public healthÂ with hisÂ multitude of follow-up stories on asbestos-containingÂ consumer products andÂ onÂ diacetyl-relatedÂ lung disease.Â No joke, IÂ wishÂ theÂ heads of our public health agencies had the same scientific curiosity as Andrew Schneider.Â
How much gumption does it really takeÂ toÂ buy a few samples ofÂ the cookingÂ oil and grease used in restaurants, and set up a test kitchen to see how much diacetyl is emitted?Â That’s what the Seattle P-I did with the assistance of LabCor. (See products tested and protocolÂ for details.)
Isn’t this something that could have been done in OSHA’s SaltÂ Lake City laboratory, or better yet,Â in the Department of Labor’s cafeteria with agency industrial hygienists?Â Have weÂ digressedÂ to a state of paralysis?Â
TheÂ P-I’s analysis found:
Two real butters were analyzed and diacetyl was found in a range of 7 ppm to almost 16 ppm.
In all the margarine and shortening produces, levels of 7 ppm to almost 180 ppm were present.
A butter-flavoring cooking spray released more than 164 ppm of diacetyl.
Butter-flavored cooking oils used by professional cooks ranged from 23 ppm to 234 ppm.
Two brans of oil for popping corn came in at 1,062 and 1,125 ppm.
Â Â Schneider’s reporting correctly notes:
“It is impossible to equate the amount of diacetyl released in the P-I’s testing to a degree of risk faced by those who cook with the product…”
but it reveals two things:
Food service workers who use theÂ most-common restaurant grade oils and greases on their flat tops and griddles are potentially exposed to airborne diacetyl.
Chefs and restuarant workers should be grateful to the Seattle P-I for documenting this exposure because our federal public health agencies didn’t take the iniative to do it themselves.
Celeste Monforton, MPH is a Lecturer and Research AssociateÂ in the Dept of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University School of Public Health.Â Â Prior to herÂ 11-year career at the US Department of Labor, she workedÂ and managed restaurants inÂ southeastern Michigan and elsewhere.Â
Update 12/22: Follow-up story in Seattle-PI entitled “Unions, members of Congress urge action on diacetyl.”