andrew schneider investigates

April 6, 2009

Popcorn lung, a sometimes lethal disease caused by inhaling chemical butter flavoring, has been found among candy makers.

Filed under: Diacetyl,Food additives,Government & corporate wrong-doing — Andrew Schneider @ 08:54

A recently identified outbreak of severe cases of popcorn lung among former candy factory workers may prove what government and civilian occupational health experts have long feared – the sometimes-fatal disease can afflict those exposed to diacetyl butter flavoring regardless of where they work.

Five patients were diagnosed so far this year with bronchiolitis obliterans by two physicians – Drs. Allan Parmet and David Egilman. Both doctors are occupational medicine specialists who had, over the past ten years, diagnosed the rare disease in hundreds of workers in Midwest microwave popcorn factories.

These patients worked as candy makers at a now closed Brach’s Candy plant on Chicago’s west side, says the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The union is concerned that workers in other plants that use diacetyl may be exposed to disabling or lethal levels of chemical flavoring agents and not know it.

“What could be gentler than being a candy maker, doing butterscotch and butter toffee and all those sweet goodies that children love?” Doris Stubbs asked me last week. When she came to the phone, it took her about three minutes to gasp in enough air to speak with me.

The mother of five said she worked for Brach Candy for 22 years and “loved about every minute of it” until she had such a hard time breathing that, in 2002, she had to use oxygen almost all the time. She has a basket of inhalers and pills to help her get through the day.

“Who ever thought that being a candy maker would make me this sick,” the 65-year-old woman said. She told me that several of her fellow workers also had become sick. Some had died “from breathing problems.

“I was never worried. We were just making candy, and they never told us the flavorings we were using were dangerous,” she said.

There is no indication that consumers are at risk from eating food, or in this case candy containing diacetyl.    Photo by A.Schneider

There is no indication that consumers are at risk from eating food, or in this case candy containing diacetyl. Photo by A.Schneider

They never told Don Stevens either.

“I’m the lucky one so far. I have problems breathing a lot but I’m not on oxygen,” he told me last week.

“Other people got a lot sicker. We didn’t know the flavoring that I used to cook up butter toffee, butterscotch and some kind of butter cinnamon mixture could harm our lungs,” Stevens said. “We were just never told.”

Over the years I’ve written about several cases of isolated workers reportedly sickened by diacetyl in mom and pop flavoring plants in California, snack makers in Tennessee and multiple employees at large flavor producers in Ohio. The Chicago candy worker cases appear to be the first – since the popcorn episodes – in which many employees were exposed at a facility where the butter flavoring was used in products being sold.

It was two years ago that health and safety officials for the nation’s largest unions and occupational medicine activists petitioned the Department of Labor to order OSHA to broaden its examination of diacetyl beyond popcorn workers. But many of those inside the agency says there is little or no interest in worrying about the thousands of other manufacturers who still use the chemical.

Last week, LaMont Byrd, director of the Teamsters Safety & Health Department, addressed the Chicago cluster of illness.

“There may be other workers in the hard candy manufacturing industry and other end users who may be at risk of experiencing adverse health effects due to exposures to chemicals used to make these products,” said Byrd.

He praised the recent steps by U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis to speed up rulemaking to address exposure to diacetyl, but says, “OSHA and NIOSH must further investigate this matter to protect workers who are currently exposed to these hazards.”

The union wants NIOSH, which is the worker health and safety research arm of the CDC, to check out the other candy plants that use the suspect flavoring.

NIOSH spokesman Fred Blosser says his agency is aware of the “case cluster ” but told me, “Since the (Brach) plant isn’t in operation any longer, we don’t have a situation where we can do a health hazards evaluation (HHE).”

An HHE is the detailed inspection in which NIOSH’s varied public health specialists are permitted into a plant to determine what is causing illness or injury among workers.

However, this morning, a teamster official said that they are having discussions with OSHA about inspecting candy plants in Tennessee.

Meanwhile, lawsuits against the suppliers of the butter flavoring to popcorn plants continue to be tried.
A trial begins today in a suit filed against Cincinnati-based Givaudan Flavors Corp. and New York-based International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. of New York.

The plaintiff is 48-year-old Kathryn Rayburn who developed bronchiolitis obliterans while working at a ConAgra plant that produced Orville Redenbacher and other popular brands of popcorn.

Egliman, who is scheduled to testify on the woman’s behalf, wrote a peer-reviewed article in the medical journal International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health called ” Popcorn-worker Lung Caused by Corporate and Regulatory Negligence: An Avoidable Tragedy.”   In the paper, Egliman, who is also an associate professor of public health at Brown University, wrote about eight workers from the Ohio plant who contracted the lung destroying disease. One, he said, had died of the disease.

The physician has long been critical of companies that conceal hazards from their workers and of government regulatory agencies that don’t do their job in protecting these employees.
“The cluster of new cases of bronchiolitis obliterans among candy makers has got to be the signal to even the most lethargic government agency that more workers – hundreds if not thousands – that use these chemical flavoring agents are in danger,” said Egilman.
“I’d use the cliché and say it was a wakeup call, but that happened years ago at the popcorn plants and OSHA has yet to do anything meaningful.”

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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.

September 10, 2008

Are asbestos victims fleeced by lawyers?

Filed under: Asbestos,Diacetyl,Government & corporate wrong-doing — Andrew Schneider @ 11:08

The late night comics roll their eyes talking about settlements of class action suits where the plaintiffs get pennies and the lawyers walk with millions. For many, this legal larceny engenders the use of horse whips or water boards on the distinguished members of the bar.

But up close, there is very little funny about this practice.

Nevertheless, it’s happening again. This time, the subject of the litigation is invisible fibers of asbestos that contaminates hundreds of millions of tons of vermiculite insulation stuffed in the walls and ceilings and attics of homes throughout North America.

W.R.Grace, which mined and sold potentially lethal Zonolite insulation, has agreed to pay $6.5 million Canadian under a settlement proposed by lawyers named by the Canadian version of the U.S. bankruptcy court. Court documents show half of the money — $3.25 million — will be paid to the Canadian lawyers who put the deal together, including a lawyer in Delaware who gets $360,000 for filing the papers with the U.S. bankruptcy court.

What this means is that if 400,000 Canadian homeowners — the would-be plaintiffs in this class action suit — sign up for money to decontaminate their homes, they could each pocket $8.12. Typically, asbestos removals from a home can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars because many contractors view the removal of hazardous material as a pot of gold.


Tremolite asbestos fiber

Meanwhile, south of the border, our government estimates that 15 million to 35 million homes contain dangerous material from the now closed vermiculite mine in Libby, Mont.

The real tragedy is that very few homeowners on either side of the border have a clue that their homes may be contaminated. Even fewer know that a deadline of Oct. 31 has been set for homeowners to notify the bankruptcy court that their homes are contaminated.

EPA promised to get the warning out years ago.

In attempting to declare a “public health emergency” in Libby, the agency promised to “blanket” television shows and the nation’s hardware and home improvement chains with warnings about Zonolite. When the White House blocked the emergency notification, our environmental protectors in EPA headquarters forgot about the warning.

So today, most homeowners have no clue of the risk they face when their kids play in the attic or mom hooks up an exhaust fan or the cable guy strings his wire.

In repeated tests, government scientists and Grace’s own experts have shown that the slightest disruption of the fluffy, nickel-size pieces of black, tan and gold tinted Zonolite released millions of the asbestos fibers that have caused asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer.


Raven Thundersky

If you question the toxicity of the asbestos that has decimated Libby, just check the town’s cemetery or talk to Raven Thundersky in Winnipeg. Her parents and three sisters died from cancer and asbestosis from exposure to Zonolite in the family’s government-built home on a remote First Nation reservation at Poplar River, Man.

In Washington state in 2000, Spokane lawyer Darrell Scott filed the nation’s first Zonolite insulation suit on behalf more than 100,000 homeowners. But his efforts — to get Grace to publish warnings of the danger — and those of scores of other lawyers suing on behalf of thousands of people across the country sickened or killed from exposure to the Grace product were derailed when the 150-year-old company filed bankruptcy in April 2001.

This is an appropriate point to urge you not to set up the “Kill the lawyer” billboards.

While there obviously are greedy ones out there that embarrass their own profession, we would be worse off without the efforts of many lawyers. It’s painfully apparent that government will not or cannot protect its citizens from corporate shenanigans. Lawyers � private practitioners, those with advocacy groups and even a bunch carrying federal ID cards – make them pay attention.

Think about it. Flavor manufacturers knew that the diacetyl in their butter flavoring was sickening their own workers and those in microwave popcorn plants. Most did nothing until they were dragged into court.

The same can be said for slipshod pharmaceutical producers, makers and users of benzene and scores of other chemicals and, of course, our friends in Columbia, Md., W.R. Grace.

The tens of thousands of pages of Grace documents, on which the P-I based its investigation and which the Justice department used to support the nation’s largest environmental crime indictments, showed that Grace knew their miners and their families in Libby and their workers at hundreds of vermiculite processing plants were at risk. And kept it secret.

Nothing happened until a small law firm in Montana began suing the worldwide company on behalf of people who died because of its actions.

A federal grand jury issued criminal indictments against Grace and seven of its top bosses. It is hoped that the trial will finally begin in late winter.

While some of these lawyers are actual heroes, so are many of EPA’s frontline troops � the emergency responders, investigators, toxicologists, physicians and scientists. They have busted their tails since the Seattle P-I first reported on the tragedy in Libby in 1999. Many stood up not only to Grace and the politicians in their pockets, but also to the political appointees in their own agency and the White House itself.

Some EPA regions are more involved than others. The regional offices in Denver and Seattle led the way. Chicago was right in the midst of it with its investigation of Grace’s large Zonolite expansion plants in Minneapolis.

Even today, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that the EPA gang from Chicago is back in town testing for asbestos in the air and dust in 30 to 50 homes. Between 2000 and 2004 EPA had removed contaminated soil from the yards of 268 homes near the plant.

Terry Thiele, who lived around the corner from the plant during his childhood, told the paper that he and his siblings and mother all have asbestosis to some degree and that his father died from mesothelioma.

“My whole family has lung X-rays that look like patchwork quilts because of all the scarring” from the fibers, Thiele told Star reporter Tom Meersman.

In Spokane, Scott told me: “People still don’t know. There are probably 120,00 to 140,000 homeowners in Washington alone with Zonolite in their homes and most don’t know it.”

He is concerned that the Oct, 31 deadline imposed by Grace will pass unknown to millions across the country. He has asked Grace bankruptcy Judge Judith Fitzgerald to consider his class action filed in 2000 and to allow him to file on behalf of tens of thousands of Washington homeowners who own or occupy property containing the Zonolite insulation.

Fitzgerald has yet to rule on his motion.

Here are some links with more information:

Here is the court’s notice of the October deadline.

This is EPA’s page on asbestos and here’s more than anyone would want to know about vermiculite.

NEW For those of you who asked for a phone number of a human who might know something about the issue, for years, EPA’s Public Information Center in Seattle at (206) 553-1200 has been fielding questions on Zonolite insulation and the same vermiculite in garden products and potting soil.

September 6, 2008

Strong opinions over latest popcorn suit

Filed under: Diacetyl,Food additives,Food poisoning,Worker Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 09:15

The fireworks on the convention floor of both parties’ nominating conventions seems fairly tame when compared with the nasty sparring over a story the P-I ran Friday. It was about a man in Spokane who has severe lung disease and doctors say it was because he ate several bags of popcorn each day.

Larry Newkirk runs a building supply company and gets around OK, he says, for a 54-year-old guy whose lungs move just about half of the volume of air that they should and, apparently did, before he began eating four to six bags of popcorn a day.


Larry Newkirk

In the P-I story on the suit filed on his behalf Thursday in federal court in Spokane, Newkirk talked about spending two or three years being bounced from physician to physician and specialist to specialist as he tried to determine why his lungs were failing.

Some of the scores of readers who phoned or e-mailed me to “share” their poignant opinions on Newkirk’s suit, questioned the why in the medical mystery behind his illness.

While the disease he has – bronchiolitis obliterans – is uncommon, misdiagnosing it isn’t. I base that on nine years of interviewing sick workers in popcorn plants, flavoring factories and other manufacturing sites – huge and mom and pop – where synthetic butter flavoring was used. The similarity that all had – beyond being exposed to vapors from flavoring agents – was that almost to a person, they were misdiagnosed with asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, pneumonia or excessive smoking.

Almost all the cases that were spotted were diagnosed by occupational medicine specialists, and then only physicians like Drs. Allen Parmet in Kansas City, David Egilman in Massachusetts and Phil Harber at UCLA, who knew what to look for.

Parmet diagnosed the illness in Newkirk, and last September, Cecile Rose at Denver’s National Jewish respiratory center identified what was sickening Wayne Watson, who ate about two to three bags of popcorn daily.

Lectures have been given at many medical conferences and some journal articles have been written, but most of the docs who have actually diagnosed the sometimes fatal disease believe a large number of cases are being missed.

Diacetyl has been, and continues to be, used to give thousands of food products a buttery taste. The disease is believed to be a principle cause of the severe respiratory illness producing obstruction of the small airways and diminished ability to breathe.

Many of you were angered and puzzled that Newkirk’s lawyers were suing Shopko Stores, the grocery chain where he bought the popcorn. No, I can’t tell you why and yes, I agree they, and most other merchants, can only trust the word of their suppliers that the food they sell is safe. And, I guess that ConAgra, which produced all the Act II popcorn that Newkirk consumed, might make that same argument.

It is unlikely that this argument can easily be made by Bush Boake Allen, International Flavors and Fragrances, Givaudan Flavors Corp., Symrise and several other flavoring manufacturers that the suit said were yet to be named.

Court documents show that most of these companies knew the potential danger of diacetyl or should have. Almost all of them, or the companies they purchased – have been sued by workers in popcorn plants, flavoring users and, in some cases, their own workers, all of whom allege that their disease was caused by the butter flavoring.

In December, the P-I reported on its investigation of diacetyl in butter products and cooking oils and found that professional cooks could be exposed to high levels of the toxic vapors. But some major manufacturers say that diacetyl has been removed from their cooking products. Nevertheless, some kitchen workers continue to say they’re worried.

Finally, several of those expressing views were almost rabid over the fact that anyone would consume six bags of popcorn each night. However, the photograph of Larry that we ran with the story clearly counters the assumptions of some that he was an enormous couch potato, who deserved what he got.

Some of the commenters shared tales of their own popcorn diet and told of significant weigh loss. Nutritionalists also weighed in with strong opinions on America’s most popular snack food.

I like it, but I cook it on the stove.

If this suit ever does get into court, it will be interesting.

September 4, 2008

Popcorn eater has lungs destroyed

Filed under: Diacetyl,Food - good, bad, weird,Food labeling,Food poisoning — Andrew Schneider @ 16:57

For the second time in this country, a popcorn eater claims his lungs were destroyed by the fumes from butter flavoring released when he microwaved several bags of popcorn each day.

A suit was filed late today in federal court in Spokane on behalf of Larry Newkirk, who has been diagnosed with a rare and often fatal lung disease lung condition called bronchiolitis obliterans, or “popcorn lung.” This disease has sickened hundreds of workers in microwave popcorn plants and other factories using the butter flavorng diacetyl and other chemical flavor agents.

He sued Conagra Foods, which made the popcorn; stores that sold it; and companies that made flavoring for the popcorn.

The Missouri law firm of Humphrey, Farrington & McClain brought the lawsuit. The firm for the past eight years has handled suits on behalf of scores of workers in microwave popcorn plants in the Midwest whose lungs were damaged or destroyed by exposure to high level of the chemical flavoring agent.

Newkirk is only the second consumer to claim he has been injured by cooking popcorn at home.

“Eating the popcorn is not what’s at issue,” said Steven Crick, who is Newkirk’s attorney.

Last year, a man in Denver was the first consumer to be diagnosed with the disease.

June 5, 2008

Popcorn butter-flavoring and Parkinson’?

Filed under: Diacetyl,Random observations — Andrew Schneider @ 16:00

It has been repeatedly documented that inhalation of vapors from diacetyl butter flavoring has destroy lungs of scores of workers at popcorn plants and in other industries involving flavoring agents. But, Dr. David Egilman, a specialist in occupational and internal medicine who has diagnosed many of these workers, is concerned about two cases of Parkinson’s disease that he recently encountered in employees from one of the largest flavoring companies in the country.

The two men, both in their mid-50s, were flavorists for Givaudan in Cincinnati, OH, and worked with diacetyl and numerous other chemicals, Egilman told me in a telephone interview earlier this week. In the past, Givaudan refused to discuss health problems of specific workers.

“I’m not saying there is a proven link between diacetyl and Parkinson’s, but there are only 15 flavorists at the company and to find a relatively rare disease like this in two of them raises a concern,” said the Massachusetts-based physician who is a clinical professor of medicine at Brown University.

Egilman, who has served as an expert witness for many workers reportedly injured by exposure to diacetyl, says the Food and Drug Administration and the companies manufacturing, using and selling flavoring agents must be held accountable for exposing workers, and in some cases, the public, to toxic food additives that remain untested for adverse effects.

The public health worker’s blog “Pump Handle,” said today wrote that “workers are typically the canaries for the rest of us” and urged the occupational medicine and public health community to notify Egilman of similar cases of Parkinson’s in flavoring-exposed workers.

“Parkinson’s may not be a problem but we owe it to the workers and their families to at least check it out,” Egilman told me.

March 27, 2008

Spreading the word of diacetyl danger

As awareness of the health hazard from exposure to lung-destroying diacetyl spreads, government and food service industry safety officials, as well as some consumers, worry over how to identify the presence of the controversial butter flavoring in the products with which they cook.

It is almost impossible to find “diacetyl” listed when you read the ingredients on the labels of oils, butters, margarines and cooking sprays. In almost all cases, the only indication that it may be present will be the mention of “natural and artificial flavorings.”

That’s all the FDA demands, because it considers diacetyl to be safe to use.


Testing for diacetyl. P-I photo

Worker health investigators from the government, unions and elsewhere are trying to determine whether diacetyl is in the thousands of cooking products used in hundreds of thousands of commercial kitchens. They face a difficult task. They tell me they often find themselves stymied when trying to determine what additives are in the products.

The mammoth, nationwide distributors will say they don’t know and point to the manufacturers, who sometimes can’t or won’t discuss the formulation.

In the end, those trying to evaluate the risks have to turn to complex, costly and time-consuming laboratory analysis to learn what hazards may be coming from the vapors rising from the heated grills and skillets.

The American Culinary Federation, the nation’s largest organization for professional chefs, is concerned that chefs and cooks not associated with professional groups or unions looking out for their safety may not be aware of the dangers from using diacetyl-containing products.


Chef Walter Bronowitz

“There are still tens of thousands of short order and line cooks who have yet to hear about this,” Walter Bronowitz, the organization’s national secretary and executive chef at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital and Medical Center told me today. “They must be made aware also. We all must help spread the word to those we aren’t normally in contact with.”

He also raised the issue of the importance and difficulty of knowing what’s in the products.

“Most of us chefs are removing butter flavored products from use in our kitchens as a result of what we now know about diacetyl, but we need action quickly so that we can also know what other products it’s being put into by manufacturers,” he said.

Bronowitz said the 20,000 member federation is sending information to its 260 state, regional and local chapters in the hope that the need for caution will be disseminated widely and rapidly.

Here is a link to ACF’s call for the FDA to change its designation that diacetyl is safe.

March 20, 2008

Chefs urge diacetyl investigation

The nation’s largest organization for professional chefs today called for increased government investigations into the cause-and-effect relationship between the chemical butter flavoring diacetyl and the sometimes fatal lung disease that has destroyed the lungs of hundreds of workers in flavoring and popcorn plants.

The American Culinary Federation also urged the Food and Drug Administration to remove its “generally recognized as safe” designation from the chemical combination of diacetyl that is used to impart a butter flavoring to thousands of food products. This must be done, the federation said, “until a conclusive determination is made” on the danger of the food additive.

“Compelling evidence exists that exposure to and inhalation of diacetyl, especially in oils, butters, margarines and popcorn, does have a direct correlation to harmful health effects,” John Kinsella, president of the federation said in a statement released today. “It is imperative that the government investigate the dangers of diacetyl, as well as impose regulations, until conclusive evidence can be obtained as to the hazardous effects, extent of exposure and association with the fatal lung disease, bronchiolitis obliterans.”

In December, the Seattle P-I reported on the results of laboratory analysis it commissioned of almost two dozen cooking products and found that when heated in cooking simulations, diacetly was released into the air. The testing showed that the oils, sprays and butters used by professional cooks released levels of diacetyl that match what was found in some of the Midwest plants where popcorn makers were severely injured.

On Tuesday the P-I reported that the worker safety research arm of the Centers for Disease Control – the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health – was examining the diacetyl hazard to cooks in three New York institutional restaurants and that Washington State officials are doing the same at least two sites in Seattle.

“Investigations of diacetyl by OSHA and NIOSH concluded that diacetyl is toxic and does pose a hazardous health threat to workers where products containing the chemical are regularly prepared. This includes manufacturing plants, commercial kitchens and restaurants, ” said the organization, which represents 20,000 chefs throughout North America and has ties to the World Association of Chefs Societies, with more than eight million members globally.

In response to the commercial kitchen investigations, the Environmental Working Group yesterday told the P-I that the health impacts of diacetyl on workers has been known for 20 years.

“Diacetyl should be replaced due to these studies alone, instead of proving that individual exposure scenarios are harmful or safe,” said Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst for the public interest research group.

” It is pretty pathetic that we can’t ban an unnecessary chemical that is proven to destroy human lung tissues based on the existing evidence alone. added Lunder.

“Furthermore, the use of diacetyl as a preservative for real butter is very unsettling, since it indicates widespread exposure for the general population as well.”

In the December analysis, the newspaper found that artificial diacetyl is routinely added to pure unsalted butter.

Government investigators were requested to do the New York City and Seattle inspections by Unite Here, North America’s largest union for restaurant, hotel and institutional food workers. The food service operations are run by Aramark, but investigators and some cooks believe that sites selected by the union – such as the Seattle Convention Center and Key Arena – are not representative of the diacetyl exposure that cooks face in most restaurants. It’s far too limited, some cooks and investigators say, because the Seattle locations have only a limited menu, are open only sporadically and the cooks usually work in many oother places.

Cooks from the Hilton and Doubletree Hotels and the King County Jail discuss what diacetyl-containing products may be used in their kitchens with a representative from the Seattle Unite Here local. P-I Photo

Union officials tell the P-I that they may add some hotel restaurants tor “more representative kitchens” to the request for a Health Hazard Evaluation that it submitted to state occupational health experts.

March 18, 2008

Occupational Mortality Database

Filed under: Diacetyl,Environmental health issues,Food additives,Worker Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 05:55

Some of you questioned how to access the Mortality Database which I mentioned in today’s PI story on the first government investigations of dangerous vapor from butter flavoring released in kitchens of professional cooks.

We don’t know of any popcorn plants in Washington State that use the chemical butter flavoring diacetyl, but the state’s Occupational Mortality Database show that over the past 50 years, cooks, chefs and candy makers have died of respiratory disease at a rate significantly higher than expected. Candy makers and bakers often use the artificial butter flavoring which has been shown to destroy lungs and sometimes kills.

With a bit of patience, you can see what type of disease is most deadly to each of hundreds of occupations. (more…)

March 17, 2008

More information on diacetyl

Several of you have asked for a Spanish version of information on the hazards to cooks from exposure to the chemical butter flavoring diacetyl. Fortunately, you don’t have to rely on my Spanish language skills honed in Cuba when Castro was still considered a good guy. Washington State has come through again.

SHARP, the Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention program, has again beat the rest of the country and tonight posted the Spanish lanquage version of the diacetyl fact sheet.

If you want to see an example of a government agency doing all it can to address a public health and worker safety crisis, check out this letter that SHARP sent all the physicians in Washington State. In the letter, Dr. David Bonauto, associate medical director of the state Department of Labor & Industries, lists 17 of the scores of types of industries that use diacetyl beyond the much publicized microwave popcorn producers. Bonauto also tells the physicians to be vigilant for patients who work in other operations that use diacetyl-containing products.

Occupational medicine specialists at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health also caution examining physicians that care is needed when considering what disease workers exposed to flavoring agents might be suffering from. They point our that before arriving at a final diagnosis of bronchiolitis obliterans, doctors of affected workers initially thought that the symptoms might be due to asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, pneumonia, or smoking.

NIOSH information can be found on its Web site.

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