Last month, Andrew Schneider reported in the Seattle PI that the use of diacetyl-containing cooking oils could be putting professional cooks at risk for the same severe lung disease that’s struck workers in microwave-popcorn and flavor factories. Now, Schneider brings us news that the UNITE HERE union is urging manufacturers to remove diacetyl from cooking sprays and oils, and members of Congress have requested that NIOSH (the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health) investigate the use of the chemical and the harm it might be doing to workers.
NIOSH investigated when the severe lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans was first noticed among workers in microwave popcorn plants; researchers identified diacetyl as the problem and urged employers to adopt engineering controls to reduce exposure. OSHA should have picked it up from that point and regulated the substance, but didn’t. Members of Congress began pushing OSHA to address the problem, and the agency inched forward. Then The Pump Handle drew attention to a case of bronchiolitis obliterans in a microwave-popcorn consumer. Within days, the top manufacturers of microwave popcorn announced that they had removed diacetyl from their popcorn, or would do so shortly. (See our diacetyl page for more on these events.)
While this was happening, more cases of bronchiolitis obliterans emerged in workers in the factories that produced diacetyl-containing flavors. The researchers and health advocates urging action on diacetyl emphasized the fact that the problem would need to be addressed in the range of workplaces where diacetyl was used, not just microwave popcorn facilities, but OSHA evidently ignored this aspect, and focused its National Emphasis Program on popcorn plants alone.
As Celeste has pointed out, OSHA should’ve looked at the vapors from diacetyl-containing cooking oils and sprays, but instead the information came from Schneider and his newspaper:
The [Seattle PI] commissioned a lab to test the amount of professional cooking oil needed to fry or scramble a dozen eggs or grill two hefty orders of hash browns — a bit less than 4 ounces. Now, consider the diacetyl in 30 times that amount, the oil that the average short-order cook would use to prepare the 720 eggs that some Seattle eateries serve during a four-hour breakfast shift.
“Without a comprehensive evaluation it’s impossible to assess the actual risk, but there is no doubt that this group of workers should be studied,” Dr. Richard Kanwal said.
He’s a medical officer with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the research arm for worker health and safety for the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It is possible that the amount of diacetyl being released in commercial kitchens where these butter-flavored products are being used could equal or perhaps exceed what was found in the popcorn plants,” Kanwal said.
In 2006, the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters petitioned OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard for diacetyl. Fourteen months later, the agency denied their petition, on the hard-to-believe grounds that irreversible and life-threatening lung damage doesn’t constitute sufficient evidence of grave danger to workers. Exposed workers in many microwave-popcorn plants can breathe a little easier now that diacetyl is off the ingredient list, but this is due to action by manufacturers, not by OSHA.
UNITE HERE – North America’s largest union for hotel, restaurant, and kitchen workers – has evidently learned about the difficulty of getting OSHA to act, and has gone straight to the manufacturers and urged them to stop using diacetyl as an additive in cooking products. In fact, some manufacturers seem to be acting already: when Schneider reported the results of his analysis, he also noted that the manufacturers of PAM and Crisco had told him that they were working on removing diacetyl from their products.
NIOSH did excellent work in identifying the source and scope of the problem of lung disease in popcorn workers, so it’s reasonable for members of Congress to think they can undertake a larger evaluation of where diacetyl’s used and how it affects workers. In a letter to NIOSH Director John Howard (PDF), Representatives George Miller (Chair of the Committee on Education and Labor), Lynn Woolsey (Chair of the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections), and Rosa DeLauro (Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies) asked that NIOSH:
… conduct a systematic evaluation of 1) where diacetyl-containing flavorings are being used; 2) the industries and operations where workers are being exposed; and 3) health effects that workers may be suffering.
Too many popcorn and flavoring workers lost lung function in the years between the identification of diacetyl vapor as a hazard and its removal from microwave popcorn – and many flavoring workers are likely still exposed. For the sake of the millions of restaurant cooks, let’s hope action on other diacetyl-containing cooking products goes faster.