Three members of Congress have joined an outcry for federal regulators to protect workers from lung damage caused by a chemical contained in synthetic butter flavoring.
Reps. George Miller and Hilda L. Solis, both California Democrats, and Rep. Major R. Owens, a New York Democrat, wrote Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao yesterday urging the agency to adopt recommendations made by federal workplace health investigators.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health suggested ways to control workers' exposure to the chemical, diacetyl, after linking it to scores of cases of an often-fatal lung disease over the past five years.
NIOSH has investigated at least six Midwest popcorn plants where hundreds of workers contracted bronchiolitis obliterans. Doctors say the disease can lead to death without a lung transplant.
NIOSH investigators are concerned that workers' exposure to diacetyl in butter flavoring goes far beyond popcorn plants and that tens of thousands of workers might be at risk in food-processing plants making such items as bakery goods, candy, frozen dinners and beer.
The letter faults the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration for not acting in response to NIOSH's findings. NIOSH, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lacks regulatory and enforcement authority.
An OSHA spokeswoman said yesterday that the agency had "no one available to address the question" of why it hasn't used its emergency authority.
"It is alarming that at least 200 workers in worksites from California to New Jersey have contracted this severe disease," the letter said.
It quoted from an investigation, published by The Sun on April 23, that interviewed two California flavoring company workers who contracted bronchiolitis obliterans and needed transplants.
"OSHA's refusal to regulate diacetyl is costing some workers their lungs and their lives," Owens said.
Others in the House agree. "It appears that the agency may have refused to follow the clear and compelling advice of its own experts with disastrous consequences," said California Rep. Henry A. Waxman, senior Democrat on the Government Reform Committee.
The House members' letter came one week after the Food and Commercial Workers union and the Teamsters union petitioned Labor seeking action. The unions were joined by public and occupational health experts who want OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard that would limit exposure to diacetyl.
Flavoring industry companies have said they had no knowledge of precisely which chemicals used in flavorings are harmful. But harmful exposure was documented in 1987 when two Indiana baking company workers whose lungs were severely damaged sued 33 companies that supplied chemicals. Diacetyl was one of many chemicals cited in the case, which was settled before going to trial.
In response to the petition on diacetyl, OSHA replied that it was "evaluating" what steps to take. Miller spokesman Tom Kiley said that while OSHA can ignore the unions' petition, Chao is obliged to respond to members of Congress.
For previous coverage, go to www.baltsun.com/flavoring.