In the age of conscious eating, we often take note of what we put into our bodies. At the store, it’s common to see people study labels and consider the health benefits before putting something in the cart. True, some items may get thrown in without much thought, but they are often justified as an indulgence. The items we might be less picky about are what we “treat” ourselves with: sugar or fat-laden foods filled with artificial colors and flavorings.
These “treats” may not do much lasting harm to us as an occasional indulgence, but what about the people working to create the product? Unfortunately, for many in the food production industry, the use of artificial flavors is extremely harmful. Inhalation of the chemical compounds used to create the these tasty additives is shaking an industry to its core.
I have a confession: I love anything with a buttery flavor. Whether it’s popcorn, cakes, cookies, or jelly beans, I feel that the sweet butter flavoring just gets me. Thankfully, that buttery flavor I love can be created in a lab and added into a number of my favorite foods. However, the main component of the buttery flavor, either diacetyl or 2,3-pentanedione, are volatile organic compounds. During some production processes, the chemicals get airborne and inhaled by workers, increasing the risk of lung disease. This is so common that a disease called Obliterative Bronchiolitis (OB) is often referred to as “popcorn lung” because of its prevalence in the popcorn industry*. These chemical compounds are also found in the production of artificial flavoring for strawberry, caramel, hazelnut, and butterscotch, as well as in coffee roasting.
In a 2012 study on the effects of diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione in rats, it was found that repeated exposure caused airway fibrosis. In acute exposure, it created gene expression changes in the brain and changes in the central nervous system. In humans, the main effect documented is OB, which is inflammation and fibrosis of the walls in the smallest airways of the lungs known as bronchioles. The symptoms from OB include a dry cough with wheezing, shortness of breath, and fatigue. The damage caused by this lung disease is irreversible.
For employers that use flavoring compounds in food production, assessing the occupational exposure is the first obligation. Once exposure level can be measured and understood, then a comprehensive program to limit the exposure should be created. Risk assessments in employees and testing for damage to the lungs is part of the medical monitoring. Surveillance will be ongoing as long as the employer exposes employees to such a hazard.
To reduce the risk, employers need to consider the hierarchy of controlling a hazard:
- Engineering controls
- Administrative controls
- Personal protective equipment
NIOSH recommends some best practices and emphasizes that controls are never one-size-fits-all. It needs to be specific to your plant:
- Isolate rooms where flavorings are introduced into production and limit access to only essential personnel with adequate personal protective equipment.
- Flavoring mixing rooms and handling areas should be under negative air pressure in relation to the rest of the plant. Production rooms should have supplied air to replace exhausted
- Train workers on the use of controls.
- Install gauges and meters to verify the performance of ventilation methods and place in areas that reduce the impact of cross drafts. In tasks like weighing out and pouring dry chemicals, add backdraft ventilation.
- Since these chemicals are VOCs, reduce process temperatures as low as possible, even in a closed system.
Considering the risk associated with flavoring compounds, employers need to understand how much of the compound is currently becoming airborne and what concentration of the compound is acceptable to maintain. Currently, OSHA has not established a permissible exposure limit for diacetyl. Employers must reference either the NIOSH or ACGIH recommendations. To get more information on methods for air sampling, OSHA has OSHA Methods 1012 and 1013 for diacetyl, and OSHA Method 1016 for 2,3-pentanedione.
It is the responsibility of the employer to make sure the work environment is free of or protected from recognized hazards. Employee understanding of these hazards is developed through proper training. 360training.com offers OSHA Outreach for the General Industry, as well as courses on EPA regulations for various chemical and air quality hazards.
* In recent years, many popcorn manufacturers have worked to remove diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione from their products, but the damage for thousands of workers has already been done.