The occurrence of severe lung disease in workers who make flavorings or use them to produce microwave popcorn has revealed an unrecognized occupational health risk. Flavorings are often complex mixtures of many chemicals [Conning 2000]. The safety of these chemicals is usually established for humans consuming small amounts in food [Pollitt 2000], not for food industry workers inhaling them. Production workers employed by flavoring manufacturers (or those who use flavorings in the production process) often handle a large number of chemicals, many of which can be highly irritating to breathe in high concentrations.
A recent NIOSH Alert describes health NIOSH has investigated the occurrence of severe lung disease in workers at a microwave popcorn packaging plant. Eight former workers at this plant developed illness characterized by fixed airways obstruction on lung function tests [Akpinar-Elci et al. 2002]. An evaluation of the current workforce at this plant showed an association between exposure to vapors from flavorin used in the production process and decreased lung function [Kreiss et al. 2002a]. Similar fixed obstructive lung disease has also occurred in workers at other plants that use or manufacture flavorings [NIOSH 1986; Lockey et al. 2002]. In animal tests, inhaling vapors from a heated butter flavoring used in microwave popcorn production caused severe injury to airways [Hubbs t al. 2002a]. Medical test results in affected workers (including some lung biopsy results) are consistent with bronchiolitis obliterans, an uncommon lung disease characterized by fixed airways obstruction [Akpinar-Elci et al. 2002]. In bronchiolitis obliterans, inflammation and scarring occur in the smallest 1 WARNING! Breathing certain flavoring chemicals in the workplace may lead to severe lung disease. airways of the lung and can lead to severe and disabling shortness of breath.
The disease has many known causes such as inhalation of certain chemicals, certain bacterial and viral infections, organ transplantation, and reactions to cer in medications [King 2000]. Known causes of bronchiolitis obliterans due to occupational or other environmental exposures include gases such as nitrogen oxides (e.g., silo gas), sulfur dioxide, chlorine, ammonia, phosgene, and other irritant gases [King 1998]. Recent NIOSH investigations strongly suggest that some flavoring chemicals can also cause bronchiolitis obliterans in the workplace. (Some workers exposed to flavorings in one of these plants were also found to have occupational asthma.)
NIOSH ALERT: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2004-110/pdfs/2004-110.pdf