Who's Looking After the Cooks' Lungs?

OSHA? No.  It's Andrew Schneider and his colleagues at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.  In "Flavoring Additive Puts Professional Cooks at Risk," the reporter describes a study commissioned by the newspaper to determine how much of the butter-flavoring agent diacetyl becomes airborne when used in a restaurant cook's work setting.  Exposure to diacetyl is associated with the severe lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans in microwave popcorn plant workers and others, yet Schneider writes:

"Government indifference to the possible threat posed by breathing diacetyl is epidemic.  The CPSC repeatedly has said it's not its problem.  For at least three years the FDA has been ignoring the question and only now, almost eight years after the first solid links between diacetyl and workers, has OSHA said it will attempt to set standards for worker exposure, and this is only after repeated hammering by unions and Congress."

Frankly, we should be exasperated by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's study.  We've come to rely on a newspaper to do our public health investigations??

Don't get me wrong, I have tremendous respect for Andrew Schneider and his stellar reporting, which exposed the health disaster created by WR Grace in Libby, Montana.  He also made exceptional contributions to public health with his multitude of follow-up stories on asbestos-containing consumer products and on diacetyl-related lung disease.  No joke, I wish the heads of our public health agencies had the same scientific curiosity as Andrew Schneider. 

How much gumption does it really take to buy a few samples of the cooking oil and grease used in restaurants, and set up a test kitchen to see how much diacetyl is emitted?  That's what the Seattle P-I did with the assistance of LabCor. (See products tested and protocol for details.)

Isn't this something that could have been done in OSHA's Salt Lake City laboratory, or better yet, in the Department of Labor's cafeteria with agency industrial hygienists?  Have we digressed to a state of paralysis? 

The P-I's analysis found:

  • Two real butters were analyzed and diacetyl was found in a range of 7 ppm to almost 16 ppm.
  • In all the margarine and shortening produces, levels of 7 ppm to almost 180 ppm were present.
  • A butter-flavoring cooking spray released more than 164 ppm of diacetyl.
  • Butter-flavored cooking oils used by professional cooks ranged from 23 ppm to 234 ppm.
  • Two brans of oil for popping corn came in at 1,062 and 1,125 ppm.

  Schneider's reporting correctly notes:

"It is impossible to equate the amount of diacetyl released in the P-I's testing to a degree of risk faced by those who cook with the product..."

but it reveals two things:

  1. Food service workers who use the most-common restaurant grade oils and greases on their flat tops and griddles are potentially exposed to airborne diacetyl.
  2. Chefs and restuarant workers should be grateful to the Seattle P-I for documenting this exposure because our federal public health agencies didn't take the iniative to do it themselves.

Celeste Monforton, MPH is a Lecturer and Research Associate in the Dept of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University School of Public Health.  Prior to her 11-year career at the US Department of Labor, she worked and managed restaurants in southeastern Michigan and elsewhere. 


Update 12/22: Follow-up story in Seattle-PI entitled "Unions, members of Congress urge action on diacetyl."

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What am I to do with a box of 24 3.30z.bags of Oriville Redenbachers gourmet popping corn that we cannot eat? Can I please get a refund of some kind. No I don't remember the price of it,but it does make me sick. Has it been improved? Thank you for your concern! Bill Jennings

By Bill Jennings (not verified) on 22 Dec 2007 #permalink

My comment is above. Thank you again

By Bill Jennings (not verified) on 22 Dec 2007 #permalink

The Seattle PI is also the paper that broke the story about asbestos in children's toys.

Perhaps this kind of thing is the reason the Administration is pushing for more media consolidation. I know it is a cynical thought, but there might be something to it.

Andrew Schneider at the Seattle P-I is a master! I should write a whole blog post on his other investigations--whether tremolite asbestos in gardening products, asbsestos-containing talc in crayons and now the diacetyl- exposure for restuarant employees. Perhaps our public health agency heads would be well-served by having some investigative journalists on their senior staffs! Instead of accepting a bureaucratic or legalistic response of why the agency can't do something, an old-hand reporter like Andrew Schneider would figure out how it could be done.

By Celeste Monforton (not verified) on 23 Dec 2007 #permalink