By David Michaels

Every month, more workers exposed to artificial butter flavor are being diagnosed with lung disease. Last July, two unions, with the help of the Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy Project, petitioned OSHA for an Emergency Temporary Standards to protect workers from exposure to diacetyl, a flavoring chemical that causes bronchiolitis obliterans, a debilitating and sometimes fatal lung disease.

Nine months have passed, several workers have died, and, as far as I can tell, OSHA has done NOTHING. This continues to be a case study in regulatory failure.

Meanwhile, things are heating up in California. Earlier this week, at an Assembly hearing on a bill to ban diacetyl from workplaces in the state by 2010, legislators were informed that 22 more young workers employed in the California flavoring industry have been diagnosed with decreased lung capacity. Yesterday, the bill, proposed by California Assembly Speaker pro Tempore Sally Leiber, passed out of the Assembly’s Labor and Employment Committee. It now moves to the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials.

According to sources present at the legislative hearing, food manufacturers are opposing the bill, arguing that there are no reported cases of problems in the food industry outside of popcorn manufacturing, and that controls in those facilities can adequately control the exposure to a point where it won’t sicken workers.

I don’t know where the food manufacturers are getting their information. In 1985, NIOSH investigators visit an Indiana facility that produces flavors for bakeries, where two young, previously health, nonsmoking employees had been diagnosed with what at the time the NIOSH investigators called “catastrophic, unexplained obstructive pulmonary disease.”

Putting these cases aside, the food manufacturers have confused the absence of evidence with the evidence of absence. They can only claim there is no diacetyl-related disease in their industry because, to my knowledge, they have never investigated to see if a problem actually exists. I’ve yet to see any of the big food manufacturers, or OSHA for that matter, make any effort to determine whether diacetyl-exposed workers in the food industry have occupational lung disease, or even attempt to measure diacetyl exposure levels.

Sadly, we are unlikely to see any real effort by the food industry or OSHA to control exposure until after the public hears about new cases of “catastrophic” lung disease in workers employed in an industrial bakery or dog food plant or some other food manufacturing facility. And by then it will be too late.

(Click here to see our posts on diacetyl and flavoring workers’ lung disease, and here and here for background and source documents.)

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.