Angry Toxicologist

Wokers obliterate their lungs

The WaPo reports today that Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D) has introduced a bill to ban diacetyl use by 2010. The chemical is an artificial butter flavoring most commonly used in microwave popcorn. Numerous studies have found links between the chemical used by flavor workers and a rare disease called bronchiolitis obliterans. For those of you who aren’t 2000 yr old Romans, that means that the bronchioles and some of the smaller bronchi are obliterated by masses made up of fiberous tissue. It’s like sticking marbles into the networks of tubes in your lung that connect fresh air to the alveoli, the little sacs where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged with the blood. As you Romans can imagine, that’s haud sanus. According to the WaPo, flavoring manufacturers have paid out more than $100 million due to health lawsuits. An excellent case study and background to this whole mess can be found at Defending Science.

OSHA has known it’s a problem since 1999 but hasn’t done anything because it’s either too weak, or it doesn’t want to, or some combination. The state OSHA isn’t really moving on it either. Oh, I’m sorry, according to a MMWR from the CDC, “In April 2006, Cal/OSHA and CDHS implemented a cooperative intervention program to encourage the state’s entire flavor-manufacturing industry to implement the same measures.” Encourage. That’s the kind of protection our workers deserve, isn’t it? Soon we’ll move on to ‘friendly nudges’, ‘pleading looks’, and ‘good thoughts’.

Nothing will be done unless it’s regulated strongly, even by good companies and here’s why: Let say Bob’s Flavor Inc. wants to do the right thing and use an alternative flavoring that won’t hurt his workers. Bob knows, however, that this will drive up his prices and he’ll be driven out of the market by someone willing to do the wrong thing for a competitive advantage (See Amvac post again). Everyone is tied to the lowest cost operation, so the only way to make it safe for Bob to do the right thing is to level the playing field so that everyone has to do the right thing. So, Californians, tell your reps to support the bill. Do it for the workers. Do it for Bob. 

Microwave popcorn just has problems all over the place. The coating on the inside of the packages give off PFCs that break down into PFOA when ingested (See the ‘Chemical Trespass’ post on May 2nd for more). The thing is, it’s just as easy to make better tasting, cheaper microwave popcorn yourself. I use a recipe from Alton Brown. I skip the olive oil and after popping just toss with some melted butter. Real butter, of course!