Popcorn workers’ lung

While visiting Mental Floss, I read about the public health blog Effect Measure. Since I’m a big geeky science-loving dork, I started reading Effect Measure. Today, I read one of the more interesting science stories I’d seen lately and just had to pass it on.

The article in question, title Popcorn worker’s lung, is about a recently identified disease known as bronchiolitis obliterans. The first cases identified by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) were back in 1999, although there is evidence some popcorn manufacturers knew of the health problem as early as 1993. As the disease name suggests, this is a problem seen in workers from microwave popcorn manufacturing facilities.

You’ve probably never heard of bronchiolitis obliterans and you certainly don’t want to have it. The name tells the story. The bronchioles are the smaller airway tubes that transport oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from the portions of your lungs where the gases are exchanged in the blood. If you obliterate those small tubes, well, you figure it out. The condition is debilitating and sometimes fatal. As I said, you don’t want it.

Want it or not, that’s the fate of dozens of workers in factories that make manufacture microwave popcorn or the artificial butter flavor that goes into the popcorn. One has already died and several are on lists awaiting lung transplants. This is a newly discovered condition in some ways — we’ve known about it for a little more than five years (see this NIOSH Alert; .pdf)– but in other ways we’ve known about it for too long without doing anything about it. Anything like what? Like OSHA issuing recommendations or protections to safeguard workers. OSHA has in fact done almost nothing.

. . .

OSHA’s response was perfunctory. NIOSH took it more seriously (NIOSH is the chronically underfunded occupational health federal research agency as opposed to OSHA, which is the regulatory agency). They quickly identified high levels of diacetyl in the plant and found high rates of chronic cough, shortness of breath, asthma or chronic bronchitis, compared to the general population. Pulmonary function tests verified the existence of some kind of respiratory risk in the workforce. NIOSH issued interim recommendations and advised the workers to wear respirators because the actions taken by the company were not sufficient to protect them.

. . .

In contrast to the NIOSH scientists’ efforts to identify the hazard and the prevalence of disease, OSHA’s response has been trivial. When faced with a hazard for which no standard has been set, OSHA has the authority to issue an emergency temporary standard or to invoke the “general duty clause” and require employers to reduce or eliminate clear hazards. OSHA selected neither of these options. Despite significant “bodies in the morgue” evidence, OSHA maintains that “a cause-effect relationship between diacetyl and bronchiolitis obliterans has not been established, as food-processing workers with this lung disease were also exposed to other flavoring agents.”

. . .

If you don’t work in a popcorn factory you may be tempted to shake your head about the lack of care for worker health and go on about your business. There is a lot of bad stuff in the world today and this is another example. But there is suspicion the problem is wider than just “popcorn workers’ lung,” as the condition is coming to be called. Many other food industry workers may also be at risk because diacetyl is used to make artifical flavors in candy, pastries, frozen foods and pet foods. More and more cases are being identified now that there is recognition of the problem. The big question is whether it is just diacetyl or other ingredients are involved. Of over 1000 flavoring ingredients used in food manufacture thought to represent a respiratory hazard , NIOSH has established recommended limits and OSHA permissible limits in a total of only 46. Whether there is a hazard when you make microwave popcorn at home is unknown.

That’s a majority of the article, but there are some important sections I’ve left out.  It ends by noting that people affected by this new disease have gone the route of suing.  While I rarely feel is the right response, I think in this case, lawsuits are going to be necessary to get prompt action on protecting workers.  Go visit Effect Measure for the full story.  And be careful when you make microwave popcorn now, just in case.
[tags]Popcorn workers’ lung, OSHA, NIOSH, Food industry, Microwave popcorn[/tags]