In related moves, some members of Congress are accusing agencies responsible for worker health of not doing their jobs. And public health professionals nationwide are being told how to identify and report the disease.
Last week, more than 60 physicians, toxicologists and other medical specialists from a dozen states, Baltimore and NIOSH took part in a conference call to discuss ways they can track and assess the health of workers exposed to the flavoring chemicals.
The call, organized by the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists and the California health department, was initiated "because we fear that this disease will be found in workplaces across the country," said Dr. Robert Harrison, chief of California's division of occupational surveillance and president-elect of the national council.
In Washington, investigators from the Democratic side of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce are collecting information on diacetyl, the flavoring industry and the way NIOSH and other agencies are handling worker illness.
"Workers are dying preventable deaths from these flavorings," said Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat and ranking member of the committee. "This is inexcusable, and it must stop."
The actions follow an investigation by The Sun into the risks of working with diacetyl and the butter flavoring that contains it.
Inhalation toxicThousands of workers make or use flavorings containing diacetyl in snack foods, frozen foods, pastries and other products. Consumers who prepare or eat the products are not endangered, but inhalation of heated diacetyl vapors has been shown to be toxic.
NIOSH scientists and other experts initially identified the problem in popcorn plants that use butter flavoring with diacetyl. In April, the newspaper reported cases of the lung disease in other sectors of the food industry.
The newspaper article also described the way some federal and state agencies have allowed the flavoring industry to police itself. In California, the state occupational safety agency, Cal/OSHA, has delegated health examinations of workers in flavoring plants to an industry-paid doctor.
Scientists at NIOSH's respiratory laboratory in Morgantown, W.Va., who have been leading the effort to document injuries related to flavoring agents, were invited to join the California investigation, then excluded from it.
"For Cal/OSHA to take the posture that it will wait until the industry consultant assesses risk before it acts is an abdication of its responsibility," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national group that defends the ethical concerns of government workers.
"Our laws protecting worker health work only when they are implemented."
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued no specific guidance to the flavoring industry, even though its scientists have urged it to do so.
U.S. Rep. Hilda L. Solis, a Democrat who represents the Los Angeles district where two stricken flavoring plant workers live, is demanding that OSHA do more.
"I urge an immediate investigation of these complaints and risks," she said. She also demanded that agencies use their authority to protect workers.
"These illnesses and deaths are preventable. Further inaction is inexcusable," Solis said.