By David Michaels

Every year, Marion Ohio (nickname: “popcorn capital of the world”) hosts the largest popcorn festival in the world, with 250,000 attendees. The Orville Redenbacher Parade is one of the festivals’ highlights. Redenbacher, who developed the hybrid corn strain that pops so uniformly, was actually from Indiana, but ConAgra Foods manufactures the best selling microwave popcorn brand “Orville Redenbacher’s” (along with Act II brand) at its factory in Marion.

Americans like their popcorn to taste like it has butter on it. So workers at the Marion plant apply a mix of chemicals that includes diacetyl, the primary component of artificial butter flavor.

It may be safe to eat diacetyl, but breathing the chemical is killing workers.

Breathing diacetyl causes bronchiolitis obliterans, a debilitating lung disease. So far, at least three workers have died from “diacetyl lung,” and dozens of workers at microwave popcorn plants or factories where these flavors are produced have become sick. The most severely affected are awaiting lung transplants.

In the face of compelling evidence of a serious and widespread occupational hazard, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has done virtually nothing. Its been two years since Celeste Monforton, my colleague at the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP), and I first wrote about this scandal. SKAPP’s website also features diacetyl as a case study on the breakdown of the US regulatory system.

In July, 2006, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, petitioned OSHA for an Emergency Temporary Standard. SKAPP organized a letter of support for the petition, signed by 42 leading occupational health scientists and physicians.
Yesterday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published an article by Sabrina Eaton describing the lung disease cases at ConAgra’s Marion, OH factory. She writes that bronchiolitis obliterans

hasn’t killed anybody at Marion’s ConAgra plant, but dozens of current and former employees who claim lung damage have sued makers of the butter flavoring, called diacetyl. Lawyers are interviewing more than 200 additional potential plaintiffs from the factory, which employs 250.

Allen Miller, 40, of Upper Sandusky is among those who sued. He says he quit working at the factory last year because he became sick after five years of inhaling buttery fumes.

“I hurt all the time,” says Miller. “My breathing gets real heavy. I never used to have problems getting up and down flights of stairs, and now I do.”

“There were days when I’d wake up and not be able to breathe for hours,” Miller said.

Another plaintiff, Brent Stevens, 32, of Galion, still works at the Marion popcorn plant even though respiratory problems have forced him to give up playing basketball with his kids.

“I am one of the least severe cases – some of the others can barely breathe” says Stevens, who stays on because the factory pays relatively well. He says most workers make about $10 an hour.

There are cases like this all over the country. Diacetyl is used in many types of food products, so it is not a surprise that the disease isn’t limited to workers in popcorn factories. There have been cases of bronchiolitis obliterans in workers who mix flavors for use in many types of food manufacturing plants. Diacetyl is used in frostings and a host of other bakery products; two bakery workers have gotten bronchiolitis obliterans.

It has been more than four months since we petitioned OSHA for an Emergency Temporary Standard. More cases of “diacetyl lung” keep appearing.

Last week, several of us met with high level OSHA officials to discuss our petition. In my next post, I’ll report what OSHA told us.

Hint: don’t hold your breath, except if you are employed in the food industry and are exposed to diacetyl. In that case, hold your breath.

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

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