August 3, 2007 The Pump Handle 2Comment

Back in April we reported that OSHA, facing scrutiny over its failure to protect food and flavoring workers from exposure to the butter flavoring chemical diacetyl, had announced a National Emphasis Program for the microwave popcorn industry. Last week, OSHA published a directive (PDF) to launch this one-year program.

OSHA’s effort will involve “inspection targeting, direction on methods of controlling chemical hazards, and extensive compliance assistance.” The most glaring hole in the program, as we noted earlier, is that it only covers microwave popcorn manufacturing.

In 2000, OSHA was notified that ten workers at a microwave popcorn plant in Missouri had been diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans, a serious and extremely rare form of fixed obstructive lung disease. Research by scientists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health soon linked the illness to diacetyl exposure.

Since then, however, additional cases of fixed obstructive lung disease have emerged in facilities that manufacture foods other than popcorn. Workers from flavoring manufacturers in California have been diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans; within the past several months, a bill banning diacetyl has been introduced in the state’s legislature, and the state’s OSHA has begun considering a standard for artificial flavoring chemicals. At the national level, though, OSHA is focusing only on microwave popcorn plants, not on other workplaces where diacetyl is used.

One occupational medicine physician with knowledge of the problem also pointed out this shortcoming with the NEP:

There is nothing in the program to identify workers with lung disease, and to be sure if there are any workers with early problems of airways obstruction these workers are told of their problems and referred to specialists for workup.  I would strongly urge the OSHA compliance officers to require all workers in the microwave popcorn facilities to require that the workers undergo spirometry that is supervised by a board-certified occupational medicine physician, and that these results be reviewed by the OSHA occupational medicine staff in conjunction with NIOSH. In California, our experience has been that more workers with lung disease are identified, and that we must be sure that no additional exposure takes place while the compliance officers prepare their citations and the company appeals (which can take years).

In short, OSHA is still moving far too slowly to adequately address this serious workplace hazard – so, it may fall to Congress to force the agency to do its job. Legislation introduced by Representative Lynn Woolsey would require OSHA to issue a final rule on diacetyl within two years, and it would cover all workplaces where workers are exposed to the chemical. The House Education and Labor Committee has approved the bill, and it will go to the House floor after the August recess.

Liz Borkowski works for the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services.

2 thoughts on “OSHA Launches Microwave Popcorn National Emphasis Program

  1. Do you know if there are any alternative flavoring agents that could be used to substitute for diacetyl? A search of the Internet has shown much discussion of safe alternatives, but no actual mention of the safer chemicals.

    If this becomes more publicized, there may be a scramble to declare popcorn diacetyl-free, similar to phosphate-free detergent.

  2. I don’t personally know of any substitutes, but I’m trying to find out. I expect that manufacturers know that some kind of regulation is on the horizon (possibly in California first) and are looking at alternatives – although they might not want to broadcast it.

    The phosphate-free detergent comparison is interesting. I imagine there wasn’t a whole lot of awareness about the problems with phosphate when things started being labeled that way, and I would guess that the majority of the population still couldn’t tell you what’s wrong with phosphates. Companies who sell to health food stores can probably count on more educted consumers, and wider use of such a label may depend on the health-food store sales of products labeled as being free of a problematic substance.

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