Popcorn Concerns Put Work Safety Back on Agenda

(By Keith Bendis For The Washington Post)
By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, October 9, 2007

There seems to be more than a kernel of truth in findings that a chemical in the buttery flavoring that coats microwave popcorn can cause serious lung disease.

On Sept. 24, as the House was about to mandate action, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced that it would begin making a rule and taking other steps to protect workers from inhaling the chemical, diacetyl.

"All of these things could have been done years ago," David Michaels, director of the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services' Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, said of OSHA's plan. "And they wouldn't do anything but for fear of legislation.''

The response by the agency, which has almost completely refrained from regulating during the Bush administration, suggests that Democrats in Congress may force more attention on worker safety in the closing months of the administration.

The Democrats are using oversight hearings to pressure officials at OSHA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Food and Drug Administration. They have criticized the agencies' reluctance -- and in some cases, refusal -- to create and enforce health and safety rules.

The flavored-popcorn dispute includes unusual political and economic splits. The administration and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposed the House bill, in part because they don't want Congress writing the terms of the rule. The flavoring industry and 47 House Republicans favored the bill.

OSHA has scheduled an Oct. 17 meeting to discuss the issue but has not said when it will complete the rule.

"I would characterize us as proactive," said Jonathan Snare, acting solicitor at the Labor Department, which oversees OSHA.

Federal regulators have known since 2000 that diacetyl was suspected of increasing incidences of a disease called bronchiolitis obliterans in workers who inhaled it. The condition, now known as popcorn lung disease, causes irreversible damage to the airways.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found links between the disease and the chemical. The problem seemed to intensify, industry experts said, after popcorn makers started using extra-buttery and theater-style popcorn in the 1990s, increasing workers' exposure to the chemical.

OSHA said it knows of almost 100 cases of the disease. A woman who worked at a Missouri microwave popcorn plant died last year after a long lung illness and bringing suit against a flavor manufacturer.

The agency said it doesn't know how many workers might be affected in 41 microwave popcorn plants, how many food-flavoring manufacturers use diacetyl or how many of their workers are exposed. One Missouri lawyer represents 600 workers with claims related to diacetyl.

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