By Liz Borkowski

Yesterday, the White House and the OSHA Fairness Coalition (which includes members like the International Food Distributors Association, National Association of Manufacturers, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce) wrote to members of the House of Representatives to express their strong opposition to H.R. 2693, the Popcorn Workers Lung Disease Prevention Act.

No one who’s been following the Bush Administration’s approach to regulation will be surprised to hear that the responses from the White House and business coalition are strikingly similar to one another, and to arguments used in the past by Big Tobacco and other industries seeking to avoid regulation. They both rely on three main arguments that are easily refuted:

We need more data. Yeah, just like we need more data about global warming. Industry groups can be relied on to urge that we wait for 100% certainty on an issue before it can be regulated – because they know that scientists rarely (if ever) declare certainty about anything.

What scientists can agree about is that the weight of the evidence supports something – like, that human-generated CO2 emissions are a major cause of global warming and that exposure to airborne diacetyl causes severe lung disease. Researchers have been studying diacetyl and its effects for the past several years, and research questions that existed early in this decade have been addressed. (Kathleen Kreiss’s article in the April 2007 issue of Current Opinion in Allergy and Clinical Immunology provides an excellent summary of recent research.)

OSHA’s regular process must be allowed to proceed (and if it’s not, small businesses might suffer). Actually, the legislation does allow for OSHA’s regular process. The Occupational Safety and Health Act includes a provision enabling OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard, which serves a proposal for a final standard that must be issued within six months. HR 2693 actually allows OSHA two years from the date of the legislation’s passage to develop its final standard on diacetyl. That should allow plenty of time for stakeholder review and input, provided OSHA gets the ball rolling when it’s told to.

Regulations adopted in the past might have presented challenges to small businesses selling tobacco products, leaded paint and gasoline, and other substances that pose health risks – but regulation was still necessary to protect public health. Those who started seeking alternatives when research began showing health risks associated with their products will be better positioned than those who refuse to budge until forced to by law.

In fact, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association has a number of small business members, and it supports HR 2693. Many of these businesses have probably already addressed their workers’ diacetyl exposure, because for the past several years FEMA has been encouraging its members to do so and providing resources to assist them.

Recent actions by OSHA and industry make the legislation unnecessary. This might convince someone who’s accepted the Bush administration’s climate-change window dressing as a substitute for binding greenhouse-gas reduction targets. The rest of us realize that what OSHA’s done so far – launching a National Emphasis Program and scheduling a meeting that might eventually lead to a regulation – is nowhere near enough to protect workers in a timely manner (see yesterday’s post for more details).

Oh, and OSHA just put out a Safety and Health Information Bulletin on diacetyl this morning. Too bad it only addresses workers in popcorn facilities, not all facilities where diacetyl is used (like manufacturers of flavorings and baked goods).

Sure, Pop Weaver has removed diacetyl from its microwave popcorn, and ConAgra plans to do the same. That doesn’t mean that all manufacturers will follow suit – in fact, Kraft just announced earlier this week that it’s introduced a new butter flavor that contains diacetyl.

The House is expected to vote on the Popcorn Workers Lung Disease Prevention Act later today. We hope that Representatives will cast their votes based on workers’ health, not the tired old anti-regulatory arguments.

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.

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