Thursday, August 31, 2006

FDA to Popcorn Eaters: Nothing To Worry About From Lung Destroying Chemical. Really.

I've written a number of times about the artificial butter flavoring chemical diacetyl and how it destroys workers' lungs. Last month several unions petitioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for a standard to protect workers. Baltimore Sun journalist Andrew Schneider, who has been following the issue closely, reported on more than a dozen cases of lung disease across the country last April.
Since then, health officials in Ohio have identified more than 20 former workers at a Cincinnati flavoring manufacturer who have the disease, and physicians elsewhere have diagnosed more than a dozen other cases.
Given the havoc that diacetyl wreaks on the lungs of workers, one might reasonably wonder whether or not the chemical may also damage consumers' lungs when they microwave popcorn or heat up other foods containing additives. Schneider explains in an article earlier this week how diacetyl's possible effect on consumers has fallen through the regulatory cracks.
"The problem with a chemical like diacetyl is that the route of exposure - inhalation - does not fit easily the jurisdiction of any of these agencies," said David Vladeck, a Georgetown University law professor who spent 30 years at Public Citizen handling litigation on food and drug issues.

The problem is that OSHA only regulates exposure to workers (or at least it did before the current administration). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is conducting a study of how much of the chemicals consumers may be exposed to, but the results are currently out for industry review and apparently won't have any information about the health effects of that exposure.

In any case, it's questionable whether EPA has the authority to regulate diacetyl, as it's a food additive, which comes under the authority of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA currently classifies diacetyl as "generally recognized as safe" as long as you're just eating it, based on studies that were done in the late 1950s and early 1980s. The FDA did not look into whether their were adverse health effects from inhaling diacetyl while the food's cooking. And apparently the agency has no intention of looking any further at the issue.

In fact, the FDA seems to be using the traditional corporate-approved scientific method called "just making stuff up"

Michael Cheeseman, associate director of the FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety, said diacetyl occurs naturally in butter. And while the agency has not tested what kinds of vapors are released when products containing diacetyl are used in cooking, he said home cooks are not "being exposed to anything that they would not be exposed to if the food were prepared with real butter."
OK, so they haven't tested it or anything, but that doesn't stop them from assuming it's perfectly natural and therefore OK.

In other words, first kill the cows.

Of course, there are scientists out there who think the FDA is full of crap.

"How does he know that the diacetyl from cows is identical to diacetyl brewed in chemical vats?" asked Dr. David Egilman, a specialist in occupational medicine who was an expert witness for many of the injured popcorn workers in their lawsuits against flavoring companies.

Dr. David Michaels, director of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at George Washington University's School of Public Health, called the FDA's conclusions "absurd."

"There is no evidence that breathing diacetyl vapors is safe and plenty of evidence that it is deadly," he said.
I always liked stove-top popcorn better anyway.