Victory means exit strategy, and it's important for the President to explain to us what the exit strategy is.    The Honorable Governor of Texas, George W. Bush

I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.    Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Your Lungs Look a Little Redenbacher, Orville

One of the so few things I complain about over the years has been the bizarre odor of microwave popcorn. There are few things in life that compare to this affront on the old olfactory organ. Formaldehyde comes to mind. And the time a raccoon curled up and died under the crawl space of a cabin we called a house on the Fox River.

There is no way in God's Green Earth I am ever going to eat that stuff, but I'm a little surprised that I've just now learned about Popcorn Lung Disease.

Actually called bronchiolitis obliterans, it's name is quite literal. It obliterates one's bronchial passages. Especially when one is in charge of cooking up microwave popcorn "butter" flavoring. In the year 2000 some twenty folks working at a plant in Jasper, MO were discovered to have severe respiratory problems, particularly those from the mixing areas. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) stepped in with a study. These recommendations were made:

    1. Use closed processes to transfer flavorings and eliminate flavor spillage.
    2. Reduce mixing and holding tank temperatures for butter flavorings and mixtures. To the extent possible, workwith nonheated flavorings.
    3. Install local exhaust ventilation in the mixing room and on flavor holding/mixing tanks.
    4. Physically isolate the mixing room (and all flavor holding tanks) from other plant operations and maintain this area on a separate ventilation system under negative pressure.
    5. Provide general dilution ventilation to plant packaging areas. Minimize the time workers spend in the mixing room. Substitute flavorings that generate lower emissions of VOCs and diacetyl.
    6. Use respiratory protection, especially for mixing operations, in accordance with a formal respiratory protection program. (Respirators should be equipped with NIOSH-approved P-100 type filters and cartridges for protection against organic vapors.)
    7. Use skin and eye protection when handling volatile flavorings.
    8. Educate workers regarding the hazards associated with exposure to plant operations involving exposure to flavorings.

I'm guessing number six is about all one needs to know about working around this stuff, and this stuff turns out to a synthetic version of diacetyl, a substance that occurs naturally in all kinds of things. Sold to the manufacturer by International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF). Gives it that buttery taste. The study was followed up two years later, with typical governmental patience to err on the side of corporate well being, by this warning:


Breathing certain flavoring chemicals in the workplace may lead to severe lung disease.

According to a St Louis Post-Dispatch article, at least 31 people from the Jasper plant had been diagnosed with severe lung disease by the time a round of lawsuits began in March of 2004, eight of them awaiting lung transplants. Where were the watchdogs in the meantime? NIOSH did the science, exposing rats to diacetyl, monitoring the health of the workers and drawing the obvious conclusions, though hedging slightly in attributing the damage to this chemical, indicating there were other, though not attributable, exposures in the plant. That was all OSHA needed to hear, who still maintains that there is no direct causation.

Notes: 1) No IDLH has been established. One of four rats died after a 6-hour exposure to vapors from heated (55°C) artificial butter flavoring containing 285 ppm diacetyl (~64% of total VOCs), but no deaths occurred among groups of six rats exposed to 203 ppm diacetyl (~68% of total VOCs) or 352 ppm diacetyl (~61% of total VOCs) (Hubbs et al., 2002). 2) A cause-effect relationship between diacetyl and bronchiolitis obliterans has not been established. Food-processing workers with this lung disease were also exposed to other volatile agents (Kanwal et al., 2006; Kreiss et al., 2002; Kullman et al., 2005; Lockey et al., 2002; NIOSH 2004, 2006). 3) Diacetyl is known to react with the amino acid arginine in proteins (Riordan, 1979) and inhibits enzymes that are important for protecting cells from oxidative damage, such as superoxide dismutase (Borders et al., 1985) and glutathione reductase (Boggaram and Mannervik, 1982).

Date Last Revised: 07/31/2006

Juries were not impressed with OSHA's stonewalling, awarding tens of millions of awards to victims at this point. Perhaps they were made aware of this little headline on the OSHA website:


The Popcorn Board is a federation of ownership, and this is how the Bush OSHA works, forming partnerships with the people whose business entails cracking a few eggs to make the omelet known as free trade. Here's some of the agenda of this "partnership":

  • Using a mailing list provided by The Popcorn Board of member companies engaged in microwave popcorn packaging, OSHA will forward to them recent information on the potential adverse health effects of employees exposure to artificial butter flavoring compounds.
  • The mailing will also include information to assist employers in recognizing and evaluating the development of obstructive lung disease among exposed employees.
  • In addition, the mailing will provide jointly developed best practice approaches for the safe handling of artificial butter flavoring compounds in the manufacturing process through the use of engineering and administrative controls.
  • Representatives of The Popcorn Board will review and provide comment and input on a draft OSHA "Hazard Information Bulletin" to be developed by OSHA for internal distribution to it's compliance officers in the field.

The alliance lasted about five months, with no mailing and no explanation. I'm guessing that the first finding of the alliance was that any additional alarm from OSHA about diacetyl was going to end up costing the other member of the alliance a lot more money. OSHA retreated behind the stone wall and hasn't been heard from since.

It didn't help IFF's cause that in 1993 BASF in Germany did a study on synthetic diacetyl, with similiar results to the NIOSH study OSHA continues to ignore. Rats died a lot, and quickly. The study was included to the database of The Flavor and Extract Association, another trade group, in heart of lobbyist country in DC. They, of course, have a mission:

The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association furthers the business interests of its members through a sound scientific program designed to promote the safe use of flavors.

Another FEMA! Here's a statement from their handout to manufacturers after the cows were out of the barn in 2004:

Diacetyl, a natural constituent of butter and other dairy products, and a flavoring substance commonly used in butter-type flavors, is cited by NIOSH as a marker of exposure in microwave popcorn manufacturing and as a substance that can cause airway injury in animal studies (NIOSH, 2003). Prior to its identification by NIOSH as being associated with respiratory illness in workers in microwave popcorn manufacturing, diacetyl was not considered a significant respiratory hazard and it has no OSHA PEL. Discussions with companies that manufacture diacetyl revealed no information suggesting any health effects, respiratory or other, from years of experience in manufacturing and handling diacetyl. However, it is appropriate to consider diacetyl a “high priority” substance based on the available data, and the need to be cautious given the association with respiratory illness noted by NIOSH.

A bit of a hedge, especially in the use of quotation marks! No mention of the 1993 BASF study buried in their own database while workers spent years peeking into the vats of one of the worst lung destroyers ever found, and while one of it's flagship members issued safety sheets with it's deadly product that no respirator was required.

Eventually, somebody was going to wonder if the god awful stink coming out of those microwave popcorn bags might be causing a bit of a problem on the consumer side. The FDA says the stuff is fine, and it only concerns itself with ingested ingredients, inhalation not being their purview. One of their associate directors, and it really doesn't matter who, considering the quote, stated, "...home cooks are not being exposed to anything that they would not be exposed to if the food were prepared with real butter." I think those in line for the lungs would dispute that, could they gasp enough words.

The EPA did decide to check this out in 2003. Here's a bit from USA TODAY from those days:

In the first direct study of chemicals contained in one of the nation's most popular snack foods, the EPA's Indoor Environment Management Branch at Research Triangle Park, N.C., is examining the type and amount of chemicals emitted from microwave popcorn bags.

Further research would be needed to determine any health effects of those chemicals and whether consumers are at risk, said Jacky Rosati, an EPA scientist involved in the study. "Once we know what chemicals are and the amounts, somebody else can look at the health effects," Rosati said Wednesday.

The results? Not released to the public as of yet, though they have been shared with industry officials. Buried? Now that the Teamsters and United Food and Commercial Workers are among those pushing for more action on this chemical, consumer groups are re-energized, wondering why the report is so long forthcoming and why it's been made available to the industry prior to its release. In the meantime, IFF has separated its fragrances business from its flavors business. Fascinating, in a sort of Johns-Manville-sorry-there's-no-money-left-light.

Which brings us full circle to, something stinks here, which comes as no surprise to me. And who is on the consumers' side? Who is on the worker's side? It's been twelve years since the BASF study, and, in a nation where the percentage of GDP for health care is approaching 20%, our best effort is only this murky trail of industry and governmental double talk, about this and undoubtedly so many other deadly substances.

Oh, and a big hurrah for the unions for putting their foot down in so timely a fashion. Great job.

God save us from the lions of industry.


At 10:26 AM, Blogger Bullock said...

Well, thanks for the warning. Just after I bought some popcorn from a little Boy Scout for their annual fund raiser. (I could do a 2 page rant on that business).
It is amazing to see government agencies at their worst, tied up in so much bureaucracy that they can't move.You would think OSHA would be tied to EPA and linked to the other agency, etc., etc. Just like Homeland Security is supposed to work with databases on suspected you-tube terriosts, serial rapists, juvenile sex offenders, wanna-be gangbangers, etc. Big industry will always circle the wagons, be patient with public outrage until the furor dies down, bring in the lawyers to mitigate and resume business as usual.
My daughter is interning in D.C. this semester for the EPA. She was enchanted at first, said the staff is made up of mainly old hippies, talking about saving the earth and the public from big business, yadda, yadda.After 6 weeks, she has become disenchanted of late, says they are more concerned with the show of force rather than the implementation of policy. Seems they don't have the deep resolve nor the deep legal pockets (i.e. budget)to go after bad corporate habits.

Best policy: no packaged goods consumption, even spinach. Buy and eat locally. Shuck that popcorn ear the old fashioned way.Heat up the skillet with safflower oil and shake until done.Think it will work for me.

At 7:35 AM, Blogger sequoit said...

"JR" is interning next summer in DC, with a huge international law firm. He's third in his class at Denver U.

Her Jr. heads out for his PHD to Penn State in August, in mapping systems. He just now got publlished, for work he did as an undergrad.

How did we deserve such children?

At 10:03 AM, Blogger Bullock said...

I dunno, Jill and I were just talking about that.Forgot to mention our son, who is now back in the states as an AF staff sergent in lovely(sic) San Antonio. Took a test on computer skills to see what next Air Force intel job he was best suited for. They came to him later, said nobody had ever not missed a question before and are not sure what to do with him. But, would he like to re-enlist, get more training (higher level computer toys) and move up the intel ladder? He declined, so now in limbo for a while, has 14 months to go.
Maybe it is because we took on parenting as a mission; which meant cleaning up our act,becoming more selfless so as to not convey too much hypocrisy. We want our offspring to achieve loftier goals than our own; not for ourselves but for themselves.Define your own brass ring and then go grab it.

At 7:09 PM, Blogger sequoit said...

You cleaned up your act? When was that? Maybe we just marry well.


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