Diacetyl – the butter-flavoring chemical linked to severe lung disease in food and flavoring workers – hasn’t been in the news much recently. It got a lot of attention in September, when we drew attention to the case of a Colorado man who appeared to have developed bronciolitis obliterans from eating microwave popcorn twice a day for several years. (More details here.) Major popcorn manufacturers announced that they would be removing diacetyl from their microwave popcorn lines, and OSHA put out a press release saying it was initiating rulemaking on the chemical.

I haven’t written about diacetyl in a while but there are some new developments worth reporting.

Although we were skeptical about the timing of OSHA’s announcement, which came days before the House of Representatives voted on a bill to force the agency to issue a diacetyl standard, we are told that OSHA staff are now hard at work on diacetyl rulemaking. The threat of congressional action finally got the agency’s attention. The House passed the bill, but the Senate has not yet taken it up. Meanwhile, even more evidence has emerged that diacetyl is a dangerous substance that’s putting workers’ lungs at risk.

Andrew Schneider, the Seattle PI reporter who had been doing the country’s best reporting on this issue, has posted an ahead-of-print copy of a new study on diacetyl that will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of the Society of Toxicology. Researchers from the National Toxicology Program, National Institute of Environmental Health, and Duke University exposed mice to diacetyl levels comparable to those in popcorn factories. The chemical caused lung tissue damage in the subject animals very similar to the damage seen in diacetyl-exposed popcorn workers, providing further confirmation (not that many of us had much doubt) that exposure to diacetyl can cause of bronchiolitis obliterans, also called popcorn workers’ or flavoring workers’ lung.

Of course, this new study is unlikely to stop the product defense scientists who have been manufacturing doubt about the relationship of artificial butter flavor and bronchiolitis obliterans. Some scientists associated with the firm ChemRisk, for example, concluded that there’s not enough information to blame diacetyl (or even artificial butter flavor) for bronchiolitis obliterans.

Meanwhile, another case of a worker with bronchiolitis obliterans has come to light. This time, it’s a case in the UK: 38-year-old Martin Muir, who started working for a flavorings company in 2003 and now has the lungs of an 80-year-old. Hazards Magazine reports:

When agency worker Martin Muir was offered a full-time job by flavourings firm Firmenich in 2003, he thought he was lucky. “It was alright. I could see I could get further up if I put my head down and got on,” he recalled.

Within three years, exposure to an artificial butter flavouring used in thousands of products including frozen dinners, baked goods, home baking products, crisps, snacks, sweets, butter substitutes, sprays and oils and other processed foods, had cost the father of four his marriage, his health and his job. “When you do lung function tests it gives you a lung age. I come out about 80 years old,” Martin said. “If I run upstairs, I’m out of breath. I was fit as a butcher’s dog before, I’ve always been healthy. They reckon I’ve lost 25-30 per cent of my lung capacity. It doesn’t sound like a lot but when you try do anything you realise it is.”

In December 2005, the firm, based in Thirsk, North Yorkshire, referred him to a chest physician, who confirmed he had bronchiolitis obliterans, a normally rare but sometimes life-threatening condition. The work link was only spotted at all because he was by chance referred to one of the few UK specialists familiar with the US cases.

Finally, over at www.DefendingScience.org, the website of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, we try to post all the documents relevant to flavoring workers lung disease that we can get our hands on. In September, we reported that Senator 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 Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Edwin G. Foulke, urging them to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard to protect workers from diacetyl.

Not surprisingly, the agencies involved pretty much told them to forget it. Here are the responses from the FDA and OSHA.

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