April 7, 2009 The Pump Handle 1Comment

The lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans came to be called “popcorn workers lung” because this once-rare disease started afflicting workers from microwave popcorn plants with an alarming frequency. Scientists traced the disease, which destroys sufferers’ lungs, to the butter-flavoring chemical diacetyl. Two unions petitioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue an emergency temporary standard for diacetyl, and to begin the rulemaking process for a permanent standard on flavorings. (For more on this, read our diacetyl case study or diacetyl page.)

Health officials first notified OSHA of ten sick popcorn workers from the same Missouri plant in 2000, and the unions petitioned the agency in 2006. During those years, OSHA’s response was distinctly underwhelming. When Congress and The New York Times started paying attention to the problem in 2007, OSHA responded with a National Emphasis Program – but it focused only on popcorn facilities, and not on all workplaces using diacetyl flavorings. Then, in 2008, when a heavy microwave-popcorn consumer was diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans (a case first publicized here on The Pump Handle), the major manufacturers of microwave popcorn emphasized to the public that if they hadn’t already, they’d soon be removing diacetyl from their microwave-popcorn products.

In some people’s minds, removing diacetyl from the product from which it was most associated solved the problem. As we and many of our colleagues warned, though, popcorn isn’t the only product that uses butter flavoring, and other workers are still at risk. Now, investigative reporter Andrew Schneider brings us news of bronchiolitis obliterans among candy-factory workers:

A recently identified outbreak of severe cases of popcorn lung among former candy factory workers may prove what government and civilian occupational health experts have long feared – the sometimes-fatal disease can afflict those exposed to diacetyl butter flavoring regardless of where they work.

Five patients were diagnosed so far this year with bronchiolitis obliterans by two physicians – Drs. Allan Parmet and David Egilman. Both doctors are occupational medicine specialists who had, over the past ten years, diagnosed the rare disease in hundreds of workers in Midwest microwave popcorn factories.

These patients worked as candy makers at a now closed Brach’s Candy plant on Chicago’s west side, says the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The union is concerned that workers in other plants that use diacetyl may be exposed to disabling or lethal levels of chemical flavoring agents and not know it.

“What could be gentler than being a candy maker, doing butterscotch and butter toffee and all those sweet goodies that children love?” Doris Stubbs asked me last week. When she came to the phone, it took her about three minutes to gasp in enough air to speak with me.

OSHA, now under the leadership of Secretary Hilda Solis, appears to be moving quickly to issue a rule on diacetyl. As this outbreak demonstrates, it’s still desperately needed and can’t come soon enough.

P.S. Pulitzer-winning reporter Andrew Schneider worked at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until that paper printed its last edition last month. We’re lucky to still be able to read his work online at Andrew Schneider Investigates, but it’s not clear whether or how he’s earning an income from his reporting these days.

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