By David Michaels

Over a year ago, unions petitioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to adopt an emergency temporary standard for diacetyl (PDF). More than 40 leading occupational health physicians and scientists sent a supporting letter (PDF) to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao summarizing the strong scientific evidence linking exposure to the artificial butter flavoring chemical diacetyl to the lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans. In the more than 13 months during which OSHA has failed to act on this urgent request, further information been published in the peer-reviewed literature linking occupational diacetyl exposure to severe lung disease.

The country is now acutely aware of the hazards of breathing diacetyl, thanks to the case of “popcorn lung” in a popcorn consumer, first reported here at The Pump Handle earlier this week. The airborne diacetyl levels in the home of Wayne Watson, the Colorado furniture salesman with the disease, were comparable to those found in locations in microwave popcorn factories where sick workers had been employed. This led almost immediately to the major popcorn manufacturers pledging to eliminate diacetyl from their artificial butter recipes.

Today, unions and scientists have sent another letter to Secretary Chao to bring the Department of Labor’s attention to the new developments and renew their call for emergency action to protect workers.

What’s changed since the unions petitioned OSHA on diacetyl? Employers in the flavor industry now support an OSHA standard as well. Now, it’s even clearer than before that responsible employers and trade groups need OSHA’s help, and the agency’s continuing inaction only allows irresponsible companies who care little about health and safety to expose their employees to diacetyl.

Recently, the major popcorn manufacturers Pop Weaver and ConAgra announced that they will be removing diacetyl from their popcorn products, and ConAgra specifically stated that it’s acting to protect ConAgra workers. The flavoring-industry association Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) established a program to monitor workers’ respiratory health and educate employers about reducing diacetyl exposure years ago, when reports linking occupational diacetyl exposure to lung disease were mounting, and they have stated their support for legislation that would force OSHA to set an emergency temporary standard for diacetyl.

When we drew attention to the consumer case report earlier this week, FEMA issued a statement recommending that its “members who manufacture butter flavors containing diacetyl for use in microwave popcorn consider reducing the diacetyl content of these flavors to the extent possible.”

The workers and the responsible employers in the popcorn and flavorings industries need OSHA’s help. The flavor manufacturer employing two recently reported cases of bronchiolitis obliterans was one that did not participate in the FEMA respiratory health program. In the absence of an OSHA standard, irresponsible companies who care little about health, safety, or the environment will continue to expose their workers to these dangerous chemicals. A standard would make requirements uniform for all employers, and would include components like a permissible exposure limit, methods for compliance, and a medical surveillance program – all of which would be useful for the responsible employers who are currently setting up their own programs.

We’ve grown used to OSHA acting at a snail’s pace, if at all, when workers’ health and lives are at stake. What is startling is that even employer support of regulatory actions fail to make OSHA act to protect workers.

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.