The recent push to eat more natural, whole foods has done little to harm the makers of chemical food additives. Chemicals used to simulate flavors and fragrances, including flavors such as strawberry, apple and butter, are a multi-billion dollar industry. The chemicals used have generally been tested for consumer safety, but they are not always tested for the safety of workers. A person eating the final food product might ingest a small amount of an additive. A worker adding the chemical in massive quantities on a daily basis might inhale or otherwise ingest much larger amounts. In some cases, the dangers posed by these chemicals only become clear after many workers get sick.
The problem posed by these additives first became clear to many in connection with chemicals used to impart a buttery taste to microwaveable popcorn. After many workers developed a potentially fatal lung disease, it was found that the chemical used, diacetyl, was dangerous when and inhaled repeatedly. The condition was referred to a popcorn lung disease because of the chemical’s use in that industry. Diacetyl is also used in other products and posed a threat to many workers.
Those cases were illustrative of a general problem in industry. Workers can be exposed to danger for many years without a company taking action. Until worker’s compensation claims and other lawsuits change the profit margin of using hazardous chemicals, these companies are free to endanger their workers. Chemicals are approved for use without a full understanding of the long-term impact of exposure. It is very difficult to get the Federal exposure limit for a substance changed, even in the face of substantial evidence of harm. The situation has tragic consequences for the workers affected.
Source: The Wall Street Journal, “Worker Risks From Chemical Flavorings Get Manufacturers’ Attention,” by Ben DiPietro, 3 February 2015