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Manufacturer Trying to Block Investigation of Popcorn Lung Chemical

Feb 10, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP

Popcorn Lung, or Bronchiolitis obliterans, is making headlines again.  Not because the government will finally be taking meaningful steps to look into the chemical that causes an irreversible lung disease, but because  a federal investigation into the disease at the Sensient Flavors International plant in Indianapolis is being blocked by the manufacturer.

The chemical that causes Popcorn Lung—Diacetyl—is what artificially flavors cookies, candies, popcorn, cooking oils and sprays, and an array of food products so that they carry a butter-like flavor.  In late 2007, reports abounded over how the Bush administration, some business groups, and others argued that there was insufficient evidence to warrant government limits on the dangerous chemical, despite that a federal official who testified at a congressional hearing swore under oath that Diacetyl is suspicious.  Also, the doctor who detected the trend in Bronchiolitis obliterans following exposure to Diacetyl has said that the science linking the two is solid.

OMB Watch, a nonprofit advocacy group explained that factory workers, and likely consumers—exposed to Diacetyl are at an increased risk for developing Popcorn Lung, known medically as Bronchiolitis obliterans.  The OMB also pointed to a number of damaging assertions regarding the link and states that OSHA has long known about the issue but avoided addressing the serious health problem until the media took hold.

Now, Seattle PI reports that flavor manufacturer Sensient Flavors International and top governmental occupational safety investigators are battling the issue in court with Sensient Flavors working to ensure that federal safety and health officials are unable to protect workers exposed to the deadly chemical. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health—NIOSH—was called to investigate a Popcorn Lung outbreak at a Missouri microwave popcorn plant in 2000.  Since then it has found the disease present in that plant and others like it across the Midwest, said Seattle PI.  NIOSH is the worker safety research area of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Sensient  apparently altered production processes during NIOSH's diacetyl inspection of its Indianapolis plant.  Now NIOSH wants to continue its investigation because, according to Seattle PI, "pulmonary abnormalities" initially revealed demand a "second and more extensive examination.”  But Sensient is saying that although NIOSH was within its legal right the first time around, nothing new has been revealed to allow NIOSH to subject it to a "highly invasive process" again and is working to block the investigation.

Sensient claims NIOSH is using its plant as a laboratory.  However, Dr. David Egilman, a occupational medicine specialist and Clinical Associated Professor at Brown University, who has been examining patients with the lung disease said, "If any one is experimenting, it is Sensient and the guinea pigs are their workers. It is just outrageous that this company that has never tested the toxicity of any of the chemicals it puts in our food has gall to block government researchers efforts to determine if they stuff they are adding to food will kill or injure us," quoted Seattle PI, which added that Egilman has testified on behalf of injured workers in lawsuits brought against flavoring companies.  Meanwhile Huliq News points out that Dr. Cecile Rose, a lung specialist at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver diagnosed a man with Popcorn Lung which was likely caused by his habit of inhaling and consuming microwave popcorn for years.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which approved diacetyl use years ago without any agency testing, has not indicated if it will or will not order any testing of the toxic food flavoring now.

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