Confined Space
News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

NIOSH, Congress Investigate Popcorn Lung

Andrew Schneider in the Baltimore Sun has another interesting story about popcorn lung -- the deadly lung disease caused by exposure to a popcorn butter flavoring called diacetyl.

The The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which has done extensive work on popcorn lung, is greatly expanding its investigation into the potential hazards of the chemical.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has assigned additional teams of physicians, toxicologists and industrial hygienists to work with the industry and with state and local health departments that have identified workers who might have contracted the disease, bronchiolitis obliterans, which can destroy lungs.

Last week, more than 60 physicians, toxicologists and other medical specialists from a dozen states, Baltimore and NIOSH took part in a conference call to discuss ways they can track and assess the health of workers exposed to the flavoring chemicals.

The call, organized by the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists and the California health department, was initiated "because we fear that this disease will be found in workplaces across the country," said Dr. Robert Harrison, chief of California's division of occupational surveillance and president-elect of the national council.
Meanwhile, members of Congress are finally getting involved.
In Washington, investigators from the Democratic side of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce are collecting information on diacetyl, the flavoring industry and the way NIOSH and other agencies are handling worker illness.

"Workers are dying preventable deaths from these flavorings," said Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat and ranking member of the committee. "This is inexcusable, and it must stop."
In April, Schneider wrote an article revealing that Scientists at NIOSH and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration wanted to intensify investigations into illness caused by flavorings and issue federal regulations to protect workers. But top officials would rather let the flavoring industry's association -- The Food Extract Manufacturer's Association (FEMA) -- take care of the problem and police itself.

Earlier this week, Schneider reported that:
Interviews with California occupational medicine personnel and e-mail obtained from NIOSH under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that state officials told federal experts they were barred from the investigation because the flavoring industry trade association wanted it that way. The Flavor and Extract Manufacturing Association denied that.
FEMA claims that NIOSH declined to particpate due to lack of resources. NIOSH officials argue, however, that they said that due to resource issues, they would have to partner with CalOSHA. The California health department, meanwhile, says that the companies would not allow its investigators into the plants.

Meanwhile, Dr. David Egilman, a specialist in occupational and internal medicine at Brown University, who has testified in a number of trials resulting from lawsuits filed by workers aganist the flavoring companies has obtained a number of documents that NIOSHA would like to see, but with FEMA is refusing to release, claiming confidentiality.
"It would be unethical not to provide information to government agencies that they need to save lives," Egilman said. "There is too much secrecy shrouding the issue of who knew diacetyl was dangerous and when."
Egilman has campaigned aggressively against companies suppressing evidence that their product may harm workers and consumers in an effort to protect sales and shield themselves from liability suits.

Related Stories
More Popcorn Lung stories here.

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