By David Michaels

The popcorn festival has just ended in Marion, Ohio (nickname: “popcorn capital of the world”), attended by more than 100,000 revelers. 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.

I didn’t get to the festival, but you can be sure that there was a lot of talk about the first reported case of “popcorn lung” in a consumer, and that ConAgra and other major microwave popcorn manufacturers have decided to eliminate the chemical from their product. I’m sure the town hopes this will mean no more cases of “popcorn lung” there. According to Sabrina Eaton at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, at least 50 workers at the Marion and other Ohio plants have sued flavor manufacturers after developing lung disease they allege to be caused by diacetyl, the primary component of artificial butter flavor.

Now, with disease threatening not just workers but popcorn consumers, the country is awakening to the potential risks of exposure to airborne diacetyl. Exactly one year ago — Sept 8th 2006 — we formally requested the FDA to remove diacetyl from the list of “Generally Recognized As Safe” food additives. The FDA pretty much ignored us. Now, the pressure is rising for the government to take action to protect consumers.

On Friday, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension (HELP) Committee, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WT) Chair HELP Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, wrote to FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, and CDC Director Julie Gerberding, demanding they report to the committee how their agencies plan to address this potential hazard.

Senators Kennedy and Murray also wrote to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and Assisatnt Secretary of Labor for OSHA Edwin G. Foulke, urging them to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard to protect workers from diacetyl – something both unions and flavor manufacturers support.

Here are the texts of the letters:

September 7, 2007

Julie Louise Gerberding
Director
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
1600 Clifton Road, NE
Atlanta, GA 30333

Andrew von Eschenbach
Commissioner
Food and Drug Administration
5600 Fishers Lane, Room 1555
Rockville, MD 20857

Dear Dr. Gerberding and Dr. von Eschenbach:

We write because we are concerned about the public health risks of diacetyl, the synthetic butter flavoring commonly used in microwavable popcorn and other foods. As recent reports have made clear, the chemical has been associated with bronchiolitis obliterans, often referred to as “popcorn lung,” a lung disease that can cause serious breathing impairment and even death in severe cases.

We were already aware of the serious effects of diacetyl on workers in food manufacturing facilities, where exposure to it has been associated with abnormal lung function and can have swift and debilitating effects, with workers exposed to it becoming ill very quickly. Exposure may also result in a broader range of adverse health effects, such as asthma, pneumonia, granulomatous pneumonitis, tracheo- and bronchiomalacia, fibrosis and other symptoms that have been reported in workers exposed to it.

Recent studies have now brought to light potential risks to consumers and the public. Media reports this week revealed that a consumer repeatedly exposed by making microwavable popcorn at home has suffered symptoms similar to those of workers exposed to diacetyl. A case has also been reported of bronchiolitis obliterans in a popcorn plant employee’s child exposed to diacetyl fumes at home where butter flavored oil was regularly used for frying foods.

The potential health effects are so serious that in recent weeks, manufacturers accounting for 80 percent of sales of microwavable popcorn have announced their intention to reformulate their products to eliminate the use of diacetyl.

Because of the wide use of products flavored with diacetyl and the potentially harmful health effects of exposure to the chemical, we urge you to examine immediately the risks of consumer exposure to diacetyl, and the safety of proposed substitutes for this flavoring. We respectfully request that you examine this matter and inform us within 90 days of the date of this letter of any actions your agencies have taken to investigate the potential public health effects of the use of diacetyl as an additive in food products, and any steps that can be taken to mitigate identified health risks associated with consumer exposure to diacetyl.

With respect and admiration, we look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

_______________________ _______________________
Edward M. Kennedy Patty Murray

September 7, 2007

The Honorable Elaine L. Chao
Secretary
United States Department of Labor
200 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20210

The Honorable Edwin G. Foulke, Jr.
Assistant Secretary
United States Department of Labor
200 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20210

Dear Secretary Chao and Assistant Secretary Foulke:

We are writing to urge you to grant the pending petition for an Emergency Temporary Standard for manufacturing workers exposed to diacetyl used in microwave popcorn and flavoring manufacturing workers. Diacetyl, an artificial butter flavoring, has caused death and serious injury in many workers.

Numerous studies, including a recent study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, have established that diacetyl can cause a severe lung disease, bronchiolitis obliterans, in workers at food and flavor manufacturing facilities.

Dr. Kathleen Kreiss at the National Institute of Occupational Safety Health (which is responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for the prevention of work-related illness) has concluded that diacetyl poses a serious hazard to workers. Her work has also shown that controlling workers’ exposure to diacetyl, such as by the use of personal protective equipment and improved engineering controls, is effective in preventing illness.

The potential danger of exposure to diacetyl clearly calls for a national standard to protect workers and provide guidelines for employers. We’re concerned that OSHA’s failure to act effectively has created confusion in the industry and delayed effective help for workers. OSHA’s National Emphasis Program is an inadequate response to the threats posed by diacetyl. Its scope is insufficient and such a limited program cannot substitute for a standard. More workers will become ill and possibly die as long as the National Emphasis Program remains in place. An emergency temporary standard is needed to protect the lives and health of the workers who need such protection the most.

Recent reports that diacetyl also causes harm to consumers confirm the hazards to workers and the need for strong protections. Although some manufacturers have pledged to cease using diacetyl, only an OSHA standard can ensure that all workers are protected. It is time for prompt decisive action. These hardworking Americans deserve no less.

With respect and appreciation,

_______________________ _______________________
Edward M. Kennedy Patty Murray

Senators Kennedy and Murray have been trying to move these agencies forward for quite some time, and they deserve our thanks.

Although it will probably take an act of Congress to force OSHA to issue a diacetyl standard (and fortunately, there is one in the works), I suspect that the FDA will now actually begin to consider how to protect consumers from this hazard.

It is truly unfortunate, although not surprising, that dozens of workers can be crippled by this disease with relatively little public outcry. Only when the disease leaves the workplace and invades our homes does the media focus on the problem. The manufacturers response was swift and clear – they announced the end of diacetyl in their product – never mind we don’t know if the replacement chemical has been tested for toxicity.

And soon, the pressure may become so great that perhaps even the Bush Administration will respond.

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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