Thursday, July 27, 2006

Popcorn Workers Lung: OSHA's Strange Definition of "Emergency"

I wrote yesterday about the labor union petition to OSHA to issue and emergency temporary standard that would significantly reduce workers' exposure to diacetyl, an ingredient in butter flavoring that is causing "popcorn workers lung," or bronchiolitis obliterans, a serious and often fatal lung disorder that requires many affected workers to get lung transplants.

The unions -- the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Teamsters, along with a representative of the 42 scientists that signed a supporting letter held a press conference yesterday to officially announce the petition

"There is compelling scientific evidence that diacetyl causes terrible lung disease," said David Michaels of George Washington University's School of Public Health, who joined union officials on a conference call with reporters.

"OSHA has ignored the evidence and has done nothing," said Michaels, one of 42 scientists to urge Labor Secretary Elaine Chao in a letter to limit workers' exposure to diacetyl.
Because of the serious nature of popcorn lung and the fact that workers are still being exposed, the unions petitioned for an emergency standard, which is authorized under the OSHA Act if "employees are exposed to grave danger from toxic substances or new hazards," and if and emergency standard is "necessary to protect employees from such danger." Given that your average OSHA standard takes at least ten years from start to finish, and emergency standard seems appropriate.

OSHA, however, seems to have a rather different conception of the word "emergency."

Ruth McCully, who heads OSHA's Directorate for Science, Technology and Medicine, said the agency has yet to evaluate the unions' request for an "emergency temporary standard." She said evaluations of such requests can take up to two years.
So in a potential emergency situation (which generally means you have to act fast), it takes two years to determine if there's really grounds for an emergency? I'm glad she's not running my local ambulance service.

The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, an industry group, issued a statement saying it would support "any appropriate action that is based on sound science, including the establishment of a (permissible exposure limit) that will protect workers."

Now that might sound reassuring, until you note the use of the words "sound science." "Sound science" is code used by industry to pro-science clothing on policies that actually ignore, change, or selectively use science to fit industry’s political objective, generally to defeat or reverse environmental and public health and safety rules and protections. It has been used to fight federal action against smoking, ergonomics, global warming, oil and gas drilling in Alaska, stem cell research, missile defense and other issues (More on "sound science here, here and here.)

Michaels made the point at yesterday's press conference that although OSHA and the industry argue that more study is needed before regulating, the fact is that we know workers are gettign sick and dying and we how to protect them. More study is always welcome, but it's no excuse not to take immediate action to prevent harmful exposures now.

Meanwhile, Michaels also discussed a letter the group sent to EPA administrator Stephen Johnson to request the release of a study that EPA has conducted on diacetyl’s effects on consumers who may be exposed to the chemical when opening bags of popcorn. Michaels said that the EPA was holding the study pending internal and industry review. "Industry doesn't have the right to see the results of this study before consumers," Michaels said.

An EPA spokesperson said that the study wasn't going to tell us anything anyway.

Suzanne Ackerman, spokeswoman for the EPA, said her agency’s popcorn study is going through internal review and will be submitted for publication as soon as this fall.

But when it is released, it won’t say anything about exposure to consumers and what, if any, harm it causes, she said. The study is looking only at how much of the chemical is released when someone pops a bag.

"This isn’t a health effects study. It isn’t going to tell you anything," Ackerman said.
Well, that's reassuring.

Also participating in the press conference was a worker from the Jasper, Missouri popcorn plant where some of the first cases of popcorn workers lung were diagnosed:
Ed Pennell, one of the Jasper popcorn workers who filed suit and has since settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, said he and his fellow workers have been waiting for years for regulators to take action.

"We figured that as a result of the suit, something would be done about it, the government would take some action. But none of that has come about yet," Pennell told reporters on the conference call.

"Basically my lungs are shot," said Pennell, adding he is on a waiting list for a lung transplant.
Nope, no emergency here. Check back with us in a couple of years.