CDC Tells OSHA "It's Not Just Popcorn Workers"

By David Michaels

On April 26, 2002, exactly five years ago today, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published a report about the risk of a terrible and sometime fatal lung disease, bronchiolitis obliterans, in microwave popcorn workers. The report appeared in the CDC's widely-disseminated Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Since then, dozens of workers at factories where artificial butter flavors are produced, mixed or applied have become sick, and at least three workers have died. Others are awaiting lung transplants.

By coincidence, today CDC has issued a new report in MMWR about bronchiolitis obliterans among workers in the flavoring industry.

Scientists and worker health advocates have been sounding the alarm about lung problems in workers exposed to artificial butter flavoring, and this report further strengthens the case. (See SKAPP's case study for details.)

How far behind is OSHA? Two days ago, after waiting five years, OSHA announced a National Emphasis Program on artificial butter flavor. But the program is limited to microwave popcorn factories, the one part of the food industry where NIOSH has already done extensive work assisting employers in controlling diacetyl exposure. Large popcorn plants are among the few factories in the country where exposure is likely being well-controlled, since they have been the subject of a tremendous amount of work by NIOSH. Cases of bronchiolitis obliterans have been identified among workers that manufacture and mix flavorings, as well as in bakeries and snack food factories. One worker developed this disease from mixing flavoring chemicals for dog food.

Will it take another 5 years for OSHA to get to flavor factories?

And why won't OSHA inspect factories where they make Twinkies?

Hundreds of manufactured food items, including Twinkies, contain diacetyl. There must be a reason OSHA doesn't want to go into these factories.

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.

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