andrew schneider investigates

March 17, 2009

New DOL boss may really care about workers exposed to lung destroying diacetyl on the job. About time someone in Washington did something.

Yesterday, the newly appointed Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, ordered the agency’s first definitive steps to prevent workers’ exposure to food flavorings chemicals containing diacetyl.

It was Dec. 21, 2007 when I wrote about a study commissioned by my now defunct newspaper which showed that top-selling butter substitutes – cooking oils, sprays and margarines – when heated, release diacetyl vapors. The risk was about non-existent to home cooks, but could present a significant hazard to professional chefs who spend hours a day working over a inadequately vented hot grill.

Fernando Herrera, a former worker at a California flavoring plant has been told that 70 percent of his lungs have been damaged by diacetyl exposure.  Photo by A. Schneider

Fernando Herrera, a former worker at a California flavoring plant has been told that 70 percent of his lungs have been damaged by diacetyl exposure. Photo by A. Schneider

Unions and much of the public heath community was concerned. But, under the Bush administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration pretty much ignored orders of Congress and pleas from the occupational medicine experts to develop exposure standards for workers exposed to diacetyl on the job.

The Food and Drug Agency did even less.

The FDA-approved chemical flavoring never went through the comprehensive testing demanded of most food additives because industry ruled that it was “Generally Regarded As Safe,” a designation that shielded it from the scrutiny that safety demands.

I’m not sure how much comfort the shoddy FDA blessing is to the hundreds of popcorn plants workers sicken or killed when their lungs were destroyed by bronchiolitis obliterans which is caused by exposure to the butter flavoring. Scores of workers in other flavoring and food processing companies are also reporting the disease.

“I am alarmed that workers exposed to food flavorings containing diacetyl may continue to be at risk of developing a potentially fatal lung disease. Exposure to this harmful chemical already has been linked to the deaths of three workers,” said Solis.

“These deaths are preventable, and it is imperative that the Labor Department move quickly to address exposure to food flavorings containing diacetyl and eliminate unnecessary steps without affecting the public’s ability to comment on the rulemaking process.”

California Rep. Lynn Woolsey, chair of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee, said Solis’ action announcement will withdraw a Bush era procedural roadblock to that slowed protections for workers who handle diacetyl.

“This is good news for the thousands of workers who handle this dangerous food flavoring, all who up until now have done so at the risk of their own health,” Woolsey said today.

What Solis did withdraw the question of diacetyl safety from an elaborate multi-step and time consuming process called Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

Without that roadblock, regulations protecting workers can be instituted far more quickly, a labor department lawyer told me late last night. He added, that opportunity for comment from the public and industry is retained.

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