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Popcorn Workers Lung: Workers As Society’s Canaries In the Coal Mines


Back in the days before gas detectors, coal miners would take a caged canary down into the mine for protection from carbon monoxide(CO), a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas. Canaries are much more sensitive to CO than humans, so the canary would die and fall to the bottom of its cage if a low concentration of CO was present, giving the miners a warning that they should get out and increase ventilation before returning.

Today, workers play the same role as society’s canaries, warning them of the hazards hiding in chemical exposure. Occupational health history is replete with stories of chemical and other hazards being discovered only after workers began to fall ill and die and someone notices a common cause.

Some of you may have seen the 1978 film "Song of the Canary." Part of the movie told the story of workers producing the pesticide DBCP at Occidental Chemical in Lathrop, California. The workers figured out by themselves that DBCP caused sterility by putting two and two together when they realized that almost everyone working with the pesticide was having trouble conceiving children. Yes, Occidental was aware of studies that showed that DBCP caused "testicular atrophy" in rats, but no one bothered to tell the workers or provide protection. They had to figure it out for themselves after it was too late.

The latest example of the role workers play as society’s canaries is the case of "popcorn workers lung." Last week two labor unions and a group of 42 prominent occupational health scientists petitioned OSHA for an Emergency Temporary Standard to address worker exposure to diacetyl, the prime ingredient in artificial butter flavoring. The story of popcorn lung is illustrative of the continuing failure of our chemical regulatory system, the plight of workers as society’s canaries, and the unique role of labor unions in protecting workers and society.

Several years ago a group of about thirty workers at a popcorn factory in Jasper, Missouri discovered that they had a rare lung disorder called bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare lung disorder that was destroying their lungs and causing them to slowly suffocate.

Linda Redman started working as a packer at the Jasper popcorn plant in 1995, two years after the original study. Within two years, her breathing was so bad that she had to quit. Redman used to work 12 hours a day and then come home to garden, cook dinner, and do her family’s laundry. Now, she lives alone in Joplin, relying on home health nurses four days a week to help with basic chores around the house. Redman, 55, doesn’t have the stamina to change her bedsheets or cook herself dinner, unless it’s something out of a can. Only 15 percent of her lung capacity remains. Redman bides her time while waiting for a lung transplant by taking breathing treatments every four hours. She is constantly tethered to an oxygen tank, but she still gets exhausted walking from the bedroom to the couch. "There’s no amount of money that can ever buy back what we’ve lost – our health," Redman said of herself and the other sick workers. "There’s a couple of us I don’t think can make it much longer."

Redman died last May. The workers sued the maker of the butter flavoring, several winning multi-million dollar verdicts before the company agreed to settle with the rest. I think most people are under the impression that there are lots of well funded, objective “chemical detectives” out there looking for evidence of substances that may be harming workers. Actually, most such discoveries — including this one — are accidental and are only brought to light after workers get sick or die.

In 1999, workers at the Jasper plant developed rashes and respiratory problems. A year later, Kansas City, Mo., occupational physician [Allen] Parmet, hired by workers’ attorneys, isolated the problem by comparing records of eight victims. "I said, `My gosh, they all work at the same plant. Holy smokes, they’ve all got bronchiolitis obliterans,’" … He was referring to a rare lung disorder that attacks roughly 1 in 40,000 Americans and causes breathing problems and airway obstructions.

In some ways, the popcorn workers were rather lucky. Diacetyl had left its "fingerprint" on their lungs in a relatively short period of time. Had the damage caused by the chemical masked itself as some more common "lifestyle" disease, or had it taken thirty years to become apparent, it may never have been linked back to exposures in their workplaces. Actually, the health effects of diacetyl were discovered as early as 1970’s by BASF whose study found that

After breathing diacetyl vapors for just four hours, some rats gagged and gasped for breath. Half the rats in the study died within a day. All rats exposed to diacetyl rapidly showed signs of distress. Those exposed to medium and high levels died within seven days, according to the industry data. Of the 10 rats with highest exposure, nine died the first day. Examination of their tissues after death showed that parts of their lungs had collapsed and filled with blood and fluid. Tissue swelled in the liver and cells in the kidney died.

And there is evidence that the Flavor and Extract Manufacturing Association (with the unfortunate acronym "FEMA"), which claims that it seeks to “Achieve and maintain a consistent, scientifically valid approach to safety evaluation of flavor ingredients,” knew about the problem back in the 1980’s:

Diacetyl’s potent punch was no secret to its manufacturers….The flavoring group apparently did know as early as 1985 that breathing high concentrations of diacetyl posed a breathing hazard — to humans — according to the association’s "ingredient data sheet" on the chemical. "Harmful. Sore throat, coughing; may be absorbed," the report states under the heading, "Human Health Effects Data, Known Effects of Acute Exposure" for inhalation. "High concentrations may cause irritation of respiratory tract; capable of producing systemic toxicity." The diacetyl "ingredient data sheet" had taken on a different look by 2001, the year the industry first learned of the cluster of popcorn worker cases in the Midwest. Under the same heading, the new report states, "Not Found" for both ingestion and inhalation. Hallagan said the industry had not yet gotten around to updating the data sheet, using a "place-keeper" to fill in the blanks. And the "place-keeper" went by the term "Not Found." To this day, the manufacturers’ Material Safety Data Sheet on diacetyl does not mention bronchiolitis obliterans among the potential hazards.

Nevertheless, the Material Safety Data Sheet – a government-mandated form that workers use to determine the hazards of the chemical they work with — that was sent out by Diacetyl manufacturer IFC to the Jasper popcorn plant did not contain adequate warnings.

Instead of warning its customers appropriately, [Brown University lung disease expert Dr. David]Egilman said, International Flavors & Fragrances led its customers to believe that the product wasn’t dangerous. The [Jasper, Missouri] company distributed a safety sheet with its butter flavoring that read, "Respiratory protection: none generally required. If desired, use NIOSH-approved respirator." The Material Safety Data Sheet is dated 1992. A safety sheet written in 1994 by flavoring manufacturer Bush Boake Allen, another defendant in the lawsuit, said that respirators were not normally required for its butter flavoring, unless vapor concentrations were "high." The company is now a subsidiary of International Flavors & Fragrances.

Shortly after the cases in Jasper began appearing, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) a government workplace safety research agency and one of the few government agencies to do its job, jumped in to investigate diacetyl and conducted a number of studies about the chemical. What they found was shocking. It was one of the worst lung toxins they had ever seen.

One scientist, research physiologist Jeffrey Fedan, used the words "astonishingly grotesque" to describe the toxic effect of diacetyl, a key ingredient in the flavoring. Vincent Castranova, chief of NIOSH’s pathology and physiology research branch, said that the effect of breathing butter flavoring vapors could be likened to inhaling acid. "The airway response is the worst we’ve ever seen," Castranova said. And that’s comparing it to a catalogue of notorious respiratory toxins such as asbestos and coal dust. "When we say this is bad compared to what we’ve done before, we have a database of 20 years of exposure to different things that we compare it to," Castranova said. "In layman’s terms, it ate away the coating of the airway."

In December 2000, NIOSH issued interim recommendations suggesting that all workers wear respirators pending the implementation of engineering controls to eliminate exposure to the artificial butter flavoring, and then, according to a case study produced by the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP).

In December 2003, NIOSH issued an alert that was sent to 4,000 businesses that might use or make butter flavoring. The alert suggests safeguards such as limiting release of vapors in production lines. Employers were asked to caution workers about the potential for lung disease.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), whose job it is to protect workers, has unfortunately not behaved nearly as responsibly as NIOSH. OSHA has a variety of tools that can be used in these situations. The agency is authorized to issue standards that establish "permissible exposure limits" that control how much of a chemical workers can be exposed to. Standards also establish other means to protect workers, such as medical surveillance and training.

Because that process can take a long time, the law also authorizes OSHA to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard if OSHA determines that "employees are exposed to grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful or from new hazards."  The Emergency standard must then be followed by a permanent standard.

Finally, OSHA can use its "General Duty Clause" to cite employers where there is evidence that workers are being exposed to a hazard even where there is no existing standard. OSHA, however, chose to do none of these. Instead, it established an "alliance" between OSHA’s Kansas City regional office and the Popcorn Board, the trade association representing popcorn manufacturers.

Alliances are the proudest innovation of the Bush’s OSHA. They are essentially public relations "outreach" efforts between OSHA and industry associations. In this case, as the SKAPP case study describes, the alliance was supposed to produce a "Hazard Information Bulletin" that was to be reviewed by the Popcorn Board (without any worker input) and then circulated to its member. As SKAPP states, however, "the ‘alliance’ was concluded in March 2003, and to our knowledge the "Hazard Information Bulletin" was never issued." They’re website does, however, include a link to the NIOSH 2004 Alert and an e-mail address where one can allegedly get a copy of “materials” that they worked on with OSHA.

Meanwhile, while OSHA fiddles, NIOSH has identified the disease in more than two dozen workers from other parts of the food industry, including at least two tragic cases in California. Baltimore Sun writer Andrew Schneider revealed last April that scientists at NIOSH and OSHA wanted to intensify investigations into illness caused by flavorings and issue federal regulations to protect workers, but top OSHA officials refused to consider a new regulation that would protect workers from exposure to diacetyl, much to the disgust of public health experts:

"There is nothing to indicate that additional regulations are needed," [OSHA spokesman Al] Belsky said. Asked to elaborate, OSHA spokeswoman Kate Dugan said: "We cannot regulate every hazard in every industry. That would be an impossible task." She said OSHA has a "general duty clause" that applies to hazards for which there aren’t regulations. However, this clause puts no responsibility on the employer other than to keep a plant safe.

David Michaels, an epidemiologist at George Washington University’s School of Public Health who examined OSHA’s handling of the popcorn workers’ sickness, called its inaction "criminal."

Consumers are understandably starting to question whether the popcorn flavoring that is killing workers might also be exposing popcorn eaters at home. Last week, a group of scientists sent a letter 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. George Washington’s 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, it will tell you whether you’re inhaling diacetyl, which might be of some interest to consumers, as well as people who work at the movie popcorn counter.

As it became increasingly clear that the problem is not just limited to popcorn, but may affect thousands more workers in the food processing industry, and that the problem is far from under control, two labor unions, the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Teamsters, along with forty of the nation’s leading experts in environmental and occupational health, petitioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration last week for an Emergency Temporary Standard to prevent workers from being exposed to diacetyl.

According to the UFCW press release

"Three workers have died and hundreds of others have been seriously injured. We will not let food processing workers continue to be the canaries in the coal mine while waiting for the industry to regulate itself," said Jackie Nowell, UFCW Safety & Health Director. "The science is clear. Now it is time for the Department of Labor to employ their regulatory mandate and protect the public," said Lamont Byrd, Teamster Safety & Health Director

The unions estimate that about seventy U.S. companies are involved in the making and marketing of flavorings.

More than 8,000 workers are employed in the flavorings production industry and may be exposed to the dangers of diacetyl and other similar chemicals, and tens of thousands of food processing workers are involved in the production of popcorn, pastries, frozen foods, and candies which uses these chemicals. Even dog food contains this harmful chemical.

OSHA’s response to the union petition reveals their rather odd understanding 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.

Two years to determine whether we have an emergency on our hands? I’m glad she’s not running my local ambulance service.

Lessons Learned

Unions are the only institution capable of protecting workers: It is unclear when, or if OSHA will act on the unions’ petition. But it is clear that there would be no chance of OSHA action without the unions’ intervention. In fact, every standard that has ever been issued by OSHA has been initiated by petitions from labor unions and then defended in court by labor unions.

In addition, forcing OSHA to issue health and safety standards or to enforce the law is no longer a simple administrative process. To be successful, unions need to organize massive grassroots political action campaigns. It takes coordination from the AFL-CIO and national unions, it involves organizing the victims of health and safety problems on the local and national level and it takes political action in Washington and in the states to counter the powerful industry associations that oppose an regulatory activity that helps workers.

Absent Action By OSHA, Lawsuits Remain Workers’ Only Solution: Workers compensation prohibits workers from suing their employer, leaving them two options: stronger OSHA regulations and enforcement, or lawsuits. The Bush administration has largely succeeded in defanging OSHA, leaving the tort system and lawsuits as workers’ only recourse, particularly with an unregulated substance like diacetyl. In this case, the lawsuits have stimulated significant progress, as the SKAPP case study reports:

While OSHA has done little to compel employers to reduce exposures, the threat of law suits against the flavoring manufacturers has become a potentially important mechanism to prevent bronchiolitis obliterans. More than $100 million has been awarded through court cases and settlements to former popcorn plant workers whose lungs were destroyed by diacetyl. These suits are against the flavor manufacturers who knew or should have known that the flavorings were capable of causing lung disease. If they had warned employers and workers about the hazards associated with diacetyl, or if they had sold a less hazardous product, some or all of these cases might have been prevented.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration and Republican congress is also attempting take the lawsuit option out of the hands of workers and consumers through "tort reform" and attacks on "frivolous" lawsuits. But As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich says in a Washington Post article last year:

The administration can’t have it both ways. Either it should move to strengthen regulatory agencies or it should maintain the present system of tort liability. Take away both, and consumers are in deep trouble.

And so are workers.

Industry Associations Lack Credibility: OSHA may never again be able to issue any kind of "controversial" standard, no matter how needed. And the reason isn’t due to lack of science. The reason is opposition by the regulated industries, generally led by the associations representing those industries. New regulations aren’t needed because companies naturally want to protect their workers, they cry. All they need is information. Well, in this case we saw that the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) had information about the hazards of diacetyl way before the Jasper popcorn workers were exposed. What did they do with it? Who knows? But it clearly never made it to the factory where they were employed, despite the fact that FEMA took upon itself the responsibility for evaluating and approving the safety of flavoring ingredients. FEMA responded to the union petition by stating that

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 for “when Hell freezes over.” Industry’s “sound science” arguments have been used to convince policy makers to 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.

The Chemical Regulatory system in the United States is broken. We have chemical laws that essentially consider chemicals to be innocent until proven guilty. And even when proven guilty, it’s almost impossible to ban them. (EPA can’t even seem to ban asbestos in this country). OSHA regulates fewer than 600 chemicals and most of those are based on standards that are almost 40 years old, long before we knew so much about how chemicals cause cancer. Only a small handful of chemicals that workers are exposed to have been regulated over the past 35 years and the chemical industry, which conducts most of the studies on its own chemicals and often "forgets" to release the information to the public.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are trying to force OSHA to stop requiring chemical manufacturers to include the latest health hazard information  on Material Safety Data Sheets that are often workers’ only source of information on chemical hazards.

Most people may also be under the impression that once a chemical is discovered to be harmful, it will either be banned or exposure severely restricted. Not true. As I mentioned above, chemical in this country have to be proven harmful – usually by the sickened or dead bodies of workers – before they can be regulated or banned. The European Union however, is currently considering a proposal called REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals), to gather and report the quantity, uses and potential health effects of approximately 30,000 chemicals.

REACH would mandate the “precautionary principle”, turning current chemical policy on its head by requiring chemicals to be proven innocent before workers and consumers are exposed to them. The American chemical industry (and their friends in the Bush administration) are actively trying to kill REACH, of course.

The bottom line is that until we make easier for government agencies to test and regulate these chemicals, and until workers have the clear right to refuse to work with chemicals unless they have been tested and the information made available, tragedies like this will keep happening. And without labor unions to take charge, when the canary dies, no one will notice. And we’ll all be the poorer — and sicker — for it.

More Information about Popcorn Workers Lung here.

Jordan Barab blogs at Confined Space.

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