By David Michaels

As regular readers of this blog know, worker health advocates have been pushing for regulation of diacetyl, an artificial butter flavoring chemical that’s been linked to bronchiolitis obliterans, a terrible, sometimes fatal lung disease.

Today, in anticipation of two Congressional hearings and a major newspaper article due out tomorrow, OSHA has announced that it will take its first steps to protect diacetyl-exposed workers. Unfortunately, OSHA has announced it will ignore thousands of workplaces where workers are being exposed with no protection, and will focus only on microwave popcorn factories, the one set of workplaces where NIOSH has already been helping employers address the problem. So when OSHA inspectors go out, they will likely find the problem under control in the popcorn factories. And more workers in the remainder of the food industry will get sick.

Last July, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters petitioned OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect workers from diacetyl and to begin the process of protecting workers from other hazardous flavoring chemicals. They based their request on numerous studies showing a link between occupational exposure to diacetyl and the lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans (sometimes called “flavoring workers lung” or “popcorn workers lung”), as well as animal studies showing that even relatively brief exposure to the chemical can be fatal.

That should have been enough to get OSHA to focus, but apparently it wasn’t. But this week, with two hearings scheduled in Congress to see whether OSHA is doing enough to protect workers, OSHA has issued a news release trumpeting “U.S. Department of Labor’s OSHA announces focus on health hazards of microwave popcorn butter flavorings containing diacetyl.” OSHA is trying to look busy, but it’s not going to work.

Here’s the first part of the news release:

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) today announced that it is initiating a National Emphasis Program (NEP) to address the hazards and control measures associated with working in the microwave popcorn industry where butter flavorings containing diacetyl are used.

“We recognize that there are potential occupational health hazards associated with butter flavorings containing diacetyl,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Edwin G. Foulke Jr. “Under this program, OSHA will target inspection resources to those workplaces where we anticipate the highest employee exposures to these hazards.”

The NEP applies to all workplaces where butter flavored microwave popcorn is being manufactured.

The emphasis on the microwave popcorn industry is misguided at best. Although many of the early cases of bronchiolitis obliterans were identified in plants that manufactured microwave popcorn, cases have been identified among workers that manufacture and mix flavorings, as well as in bakeries and snack food factories. (See this review (PDF), from NIOSH’s Dr. Kathleen Kreiss, for citations for these and other cases.) OSHA is not planning to visit any of these factories.

The news release goes on:

In January of 2006, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released an investigative report on a microwave popcorn production facility. Several employees from this facility were diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans – a severe obstructive lung disease. Following a number of lung function tests and air sampling, NIOSH determined that inhalation exposure to butter flavoring chemicals is a risk for occupational lung disease. OSHA’s National Emphasis Program will provide direction on inspection targeting and procedures, methods of controlling the hazard and compliance assistance.

This makes it sound like NIOSH just discovered the threat, and that OSHA has responded quickly. Unfortunately for the many workers who’ve contracted lung disease over the past several years, that’s simply not the case.

As part of our work on diacetyl, we’ve compiled a timeline of major events. In 2000, the Missouri Department of Health notified OSHA that ten workers from one popcorn plant had been diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans, and they requested that OSHA inspect the facility. An OSHA inspector visitor the plant, but the samples he collected couldn’t be analyzed by OSHA’s laboratory. The inspector “determined the company to be in compliance” and closed the case file.

Fortunately, NIOSH did follow up on the Missouri case report. It conducted a series of important studies on diacetyl, and studied air and employee health at the Missouri plant. The investigators found that plant employees’ rates of chronic cough and shortness of breath were 2.6 times the national average, adjusting for both smoking and age. Twice as many workers than expected reported being told by their physicians that they had asthma or chronic bronchitis, and lung function testing revealed that three times as many workers as expected had obstruction to airflow. NIOSH issued interim recommendations suggesting that all workers wear respirators pending the implementation of engineering controls to eliminate exposure to the artificial butter flavoring, and the investigators reported these results in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report and the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002. (The MMWR article came out exactly five years ago this week).

So, OSHA was alerted to cases of bronchiolitis obliterans in 2000, and would have learned of results of the NIOSH’s Missouri investigation in 2002, if not earler. One could say “better late than never,” but being late in this case has meant more cases of bronchiolitis obliterans, and more workers on the lung transplant list.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that this National Emphasis Program stops short of the action that’s warranted when you’ve got a chemical that’s sickening workers, many of them young and otherwise healthy nonsmokers, so quickly – in some cases, within a year or two of starting work with butter flavoring. OSHA will be providing assistance to workplaces and focusing inspections on compliance, but this news release doesn’t mention any standards that workplaces will be required to meet. If the agency were to issue a permissible exposure limit (PEL) for diacetyl, it could require companies to reduce exposure levels. This is what the unions have asked OSHA to do.

We’d like to breathe a sigh of relief that OSHA has finally awakened and is now addressing this serious problem, but we can’t. OSHA has decided that, to avoid embarrassment, it should try to look busy. But the agency is still doing its best to avoid doing anything that will protect workers from diacetyl.

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.