Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Are Respirators Enough To Protect Workers Against Popcorn Lung?

Over 200 workers have filed lawsuits against artificial butter producers that use diacetyl, the chemical blamed for cause bronchiolitis obliterans, or popcorn lung, a deadly inflammation of the lungs. Dozens of those employees work at the ConAgra plant in Marion, Ohio.

ConAgra's Marion plant has taken action to prevent the disease, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
Among Marion's workers, problems seem worst for those who mixed flavors from open containers in the plant's slurry room, where a 2003 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health investigation of the plant found high airborne concentrations of diacetyl.

A significant proportion of those who test-microwaved popcorn all day on the plant's quality control line also have difficulties, says Blake Dickson, a Cleveland-based attorney for Stevens, Miller, and more than a dozen other workers at the Ohio factory.

Upon learning of hazards associated with diacetyl, ConAgra installed a new ventilation system in the plant. It isolated the slurry room from the rest of the plant and now requires anyone who works with diacetyl to wear a respirator, says company spokeswoman Stephanie Childs.

"ConAgra has taken steps that go above and beyond NIOSH recommendations to protect employees' health," Childs said. She said diacetyl occurs naturally in butter and popcorn customers aren't exposed to it at harmful levels.
But are respirators enough? No, according to George Washington University Professor David Michaels and United Food and Commercial Workers Union official, Jackie Nowell:
David Michaels, who heads the George Washington University School of Public Health's Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, calls diacetyl "extremely dangerous" and says it should be banned. He notes diacetyl was approved for food use based on studies that examined oral consumption, not inhalation.

"There is compelling evidence that it is dangerous in the workplace at low levels and there is no evidence that breathing diacetyl at home is safe," says Michaels, who has asked the Food and Drug Administration to revoke federal approval of diacetyl as a safe food ingredient and asked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issue to emergency standards to protect workers who handle diacetyl. Both federal agencies are reviewing his requests.

Another federal agency with jurisdiction over diacetyl, the Environmental Protection Agency, has completed a study of airborne emissions from microwaved popcorn but won't release its results until next year, an agency spokeswoman said.

Jackie Nowell, who heads the United Food and Commercial Workers union's occupational safety and health office, agrees the substance should be banned. Because of its widespread use in food, she estimates tens of thousands of workers have been exposed. She fears they might not connect diacetyl to lung problems because the link hasn't been widely publicized.
Those who work on workplace safety issues are familiar with what's known as the industrial hygiene "hierarchy of controls" -- in other words, which controls are most effective and should be used first if possible.

First on the list of the hierarchy of controls is eliminating the toxic chemical or "substitution" -- replacing the hazardous chemical with one that's less hazardous. It's hard to be exposed to something if you've gotten rid of it. Between substitution and respirators are "engineering controls," such as local exhaust ventilation to suck the chemical out of the breathing area, or isolation or enclosing the process -- physically separating the chemical from the worker.

Last on the list is personal protective equipment like respirators -- they're uncomfortable to wear for long periods and often not very effective. In addition, with a chemical like diacetyl, where relatively little is known about what levels are dangerous, it's difficult to determine what kind of respirators should be used. In addition, proper respirator use requires fit testing, training and medical examination -- requirements that are often overlooked.

So, while ConAgra may sound like it's taking bold action to protect workers, it's actually using the weakest form of protection. And how ConAgra's spokeswoman can say the company is going "above and beyond" the NIOSH recommendations is a mystery to me. Here are the controls that NIOSH recommends:

In order of preference, according to standard occupational health practices,
NIOSH recommends that employers minimize occupational exposures to
flavorings or flavoring ingredients by:

  • Substituting a material or materials that may be less hazardous, after carefully evaluating potential substitutes
  • Using engineering controls such as closed systems, isolation, or ventilation
  • Instituting administrative controls such as housekeeping and work practices
  • Educating employers and employees to raise their awareness of potential hazards and controls
  • Using personal protective equipment where needed as an adjunct to primary engineering or administrative controls
  • Monitoring occupational exposures and the status of workers health, tracking potential symptoms or cases, and reporting such symptoms or cases to NIOSH and state health departments

Personal protective equipment falls pretty far down the list and should only be used "as an adjunct" to engineering and adminstrative controls. Nice try Con Agra, but if you really want to go "above and beyond" NIOSH, stop using diacetyl and provide some generous compensation to the workers suffering from popcorn lung. Now that might be something to brag about.

More Popcorn Lung Stories here.