By Paul D. Blanc
The interconnections among toxic butter flavoring, fatal coal mine “bumps,” and tainted Barbie accessories may not be immediately obvious – but they all reflect the failures of an increasingly compromised U. S. regulatory apparatus.
In early September, news broke that the artificial butter flavoring chemical diacetyl had caused severe lung disease in a hapless consumer who liked his popcorn just a bit too much. The resulting publicity spurred the leading industrial user of diacetyl, ConAgra, to remove the chemical from its product line. Thus was accomplished in one day what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was unable to do despite half a dozen years of accumulated evidence that the chemical was causing lung disease in workers exposed to it on the job.
Consumer food risk, as opposed to worker exposure, is the bailiwick of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Its inaction is best characterized by a June, 2007 “update” meeting on diacetyl with representatives of ConAgra. Meanwhile, it appears that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been measuring indoor air levels of diacetyl, presumably to document the dangers of home microwave popcorn scenarios. After communicating with industry regarding their findings, the agency refused health advocates’ requests to view the results; they finally published the study, whose unremarkable results prompted questions about why they’d insisted on the secrecy for so long. Ironically, the trade organization of diacetyl manufacturers is FEMA, shorthand for the Flavor and Extract Manufacturing Association. The unrelated Federal FEMA, on the other hand, seems to be one of the few governmental agencies that has not let us down over diacetyl.
In August, a cave-in at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah captured the nation’s attention. Over the days that followed, it became painfully clear that the fate of the six trapped coal miners had been sealed with seismic “bump” that marked the mine’s initial collapse. What was obscured in the wake of the failed rescue attempt (in which three more lives were lost) was that the very methods used to extract the coal so deeply underground meant that this was little more than an accident waiting to happen. The technique in question exploits the coal seam to its maximal value by leaving the mine’s support dependent on pillars of unexcavated ore. Ultimately, these are pulled out-from under in a final “retreat.” The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA – a regulatory sibling of OSHA) had approved this technique for Crandall, a controversial decision given the instability of such a deep mine.
August-September was also the season of lead-tainted toy recalls. This culminated in a September 11, 2007 announcement by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC) that it had reached an agreement with its Chinese regulatory counterpart. Their memorandum of understanding is meant to prevent further import snafus of the sort that allowed a lead-painted cat to slip in as an accessory in the Barbie Dream Kitty Condo set, one of millions of lead-coated toys that entered the U.S. market.
Compared to the big three – the EPA, OSHA, and FDA – the CPSC is the runt of the litter. Known by an acronym that comes across like a defunct East-bloc socialist republic, the CPSC has a long history of thinking small and acting smaller. Its record on lead toys and trinkets is a case point. Back in 2003, after a 4-year-old child was hospitalized in Oregon with life-threatening lead poisoning and it turned out that the cause was a vending machine-dispensed toy necklace that the youngster had easily swallowed, the CPSC took action. A voluntary recall of over a million similar poisonous fashion statements for toddlers was coupled with continued reliance on the good will of importers to do their own lead testing.
In her 2005 confirmation testimony, the current Acting Chairman of the CPSC, Nancy Nord, transmitted a vision in which “regulatory action by the Commission is a rare occurrence.” Nord, when not on industry-supported junkets, has been busy fulfilling her vision by actively opposing Congressional efforts to increase the staff, resources, and regulatory mandate of the CPSC.
It seems as if the go-slow CSPC is setting the pace for OSHA, the EPA, and even the FDA. Given that new workplace, environmental, and consumer problems are constantly coming to light, this means that we are falling ever farther behind in effective control measures. New, potentially toxic products are rapidly introduced; familiar substances are recombined or altered to create novel risks; and old hazards are re-circulated, their past histories conveniently forgotten. It’s time to get our regulatory agencies back on track.
Paul D. Blanc, MD MSPH holds the Endowed Chair in Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of California San Francisco and is the author of How Everyday Products Make People Sick.