WASHINGTON -- Two large unions and dozens of leaders in public and occupational health are petitioning the federal government to use its emergency powers to control worker exposure to a chemical in butter flavoring that has sickened hundreds across the country.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and the Teamsters union said they will formally ask the Department of Labor today to immediately issue an emergency temporary standard that would set a maximum for exposure to diacetyl and, among other steps, require employers to provide workers with air-purifying respirators.
Government health investigators have linked exposure to diacetyl, a flavoring agent, to a lung disease that sickened nearly 200 workers at popcorn plants and killed at least three.
In April, The Sun reported that investigators had said the disease had been identified in dozens of workers in other areas of the food industry.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration - part of the Labor Department - has not used its regulatory authority to protect workers, critics complain.
"The danger is clear and proof irrefutable and we know how to control it," said Jackie Nowell, health and safety director of the 1.4 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. "The solution is so cut-and-dried, and yet OSHA has done nothing."
OSHA regulations permit the establishment of emergency temporary standards if employees face "grave danger" from exposure to substances or agents for which standards do not exist.
OSHA has no enforceable standards requiring diacetyl exposure to be controlled. The agency declined to explain why it has not responded with regulations and would not comment on the petition.
The lung disease, bronchiolitis obliterans, is often misdiagnosed as more benign respiratory illnesses. It has been labeled "popcorn workers lung," but workers throughout the food industry are at risk if they are exposed to diacetyl, which is used to impart butter flavor to a variety of foods, including baked goods, candies, frozen dinners and scores of snack foods.
Nowell estimates that at least 30,000 of her union's members work in plants that use diacetyl and that the Teamsters union probably has 30,000.
"But there are probably more than 1 million workers out there in food-related industries that do not belong to unions," she said.
In 2000, Dr. Allen Parmet, an occupational medicine specialist, diagnosed bronchiolitis obiterans in workers in Missouri, the first time that the disease had been found in a popcorn plant.
"We identified the hazard from diacetyl six years ago. We knew how to stop it four years ago, yet no action has been taken by OSHA," said Parmet, who has diagnosed the disease in more than 100 workers, including several who did not work in popcorn plants.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which is not connected to OSHA, has extensively investigated the link between diacetyl exposure and lung disease.
The Sun reported in April that some NIOSH and OSHA scientists wanted to intensify investigations into illness caused by flavorings and want the government to issue regulations to protect workers.
The emergency temporary standard sought by the unions and public health leaders would have OSHA set exposure limits; immediately issue a bulletin to all employers and employees stating that exposure to diacetyl might result in severe illness; and conduct inspections where workers are exposed to diacetyl and issue citations when necessary.
Employers, in addition to providing respirators, would have to control levels of diacetyl in the air workers breathe and provide medical surveillance and consultation to all employees exposed to the chemical.
The petition also requested that OSHA begin proceedings to establish a permanent standard to protect workers from exposure to all harmful flavorings.
Those signing the petition included Eula Bingham, head of OSHA from 1977 to 1981; five former top officials from OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services; more than 14 chairmen or directors of leading schools of public health or occupational medicine; and 20 other physicians or scientists.
Among the latter are Dr. Lynn Goldman, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a former assistant administrator at the EPA; and Dr. Brian S. Schwartz, a professor of environmental health sciences at the school.
"These are among the top scientists in the country in occupational disease, and they agree that there is more than enough evidence to demand that OSHA start protecting workers," said David Michaels, associate chairman of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University and a petition signer.
"It's time to do more than study the crisis," said Michaels, who has studied the way the government has responded to the problem. "Workers are being exposed in virtually every city in every state in the country, and OSHA is doing nothing."