National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
For years, scores of workers in the popcorn and flavoring industries have developed a life-threatening lung disease, with a chemical that gives food a buttery taste to blame.
This month, California became the first state to set safety standards for workers exposed to diacetyl, a flavoring agent typically found in microwave popcorn. The chemical, which occurs naturally in butter and alcoholic drinks, can be hazardous to workers who breathe in the artificial flavoring they make in high concentrations.
Only a sliver of the flavoring industry is based in California, and popcorn manufacturers are primarily in New Jersey and the Midwest. The state has 30 flavoring factories employing about 400 workers, said Steve Smith, a principal safety engineer at Cal/OSHA, the state's occupational safety and health agency.
The new regulation requires employers to protect workers if products they handle contain at least 1 percent diacetyl. Measures include marking areas where workers may encounter the chemical, and limiting and monitoring airborne exposure. If diacetyl is found at certain airborne concentrations, employers must also provide and train workers to use personal protective equipment like respirators.
Worker safety and public health advocates have long pushed for diacetyl exposure limits. Flavor-manufacturing workers were first diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare and irreversible form of fixed obstructive lung disease, in 1985. But it would be more than a decade until diacetyl was linked to "popcorn workers' lung."
In 2006, workers unions petitioned the federal government to set exposure limits for the chemical. In 2007, legislation to set a federal standard fizzled after passing the House. Many popcorn manufacturers began reducing diacetyl content or finding alternatives.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has been researching the health effects of diacetyl. The agency expects to recommend exposure limits for the chemical and a common substitute – 2,3-pentanedione – early next year, said agency spokesman Fred Blosser.
“Our recommendations don’t have the force of law … but certainly they do provide at least a scientific foundation for OSHA and the state OSHA agencies to look at,” he said.
Even though understanding of diacetyl's health effects are "in the infancy," Smith said, "we still needed to make sure people were protected." California plans to update its regulations when the exposure limit is determined, he said.
Failure to comply with the rules could result in citations and fines. Even before the diacetyl standard, California used other safety rules to penalize two firms for exposure to the chemical.
"Before I used to be more healthy, but not no more," she told the Sacramento Bee in 2006. "I gave all my strength to Carmi, to the company. I leave all my strength there."
Slapped with 27 violations, Carmi settled its initial $51,735 penalty for less than half that amount. It is currently appealing a dozen more violations.
In October, Cal/OSHA began investigating Mission Flavors again, after an employee was diagnosed with fixed obstructive airway disease due to diacetyl exposure, said Krisann Chasarik, an agency spokeswoman. The investigation is still open.