THURSDAY, April 26 (HealthDay News) -- Eight cases of a rare and life-threatening form of lung disease have been discovered among those who worked in food flavoring plants in California between 2004 and 2007, a new study finds.
In addition, levels of lead are elevated among women who work in plants that make batteries, according to a second report in this week's issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Among food flavoring plant workers, a severe lung disease known as bronchiolitis obliterans appears to result from inhaling the chemical diacetyl, which has been known to cause the same problem among workers in the microwave popcorn industry.
"Bronchiolitis obliterans is a severe lung disease that can be prevented with appropriate measures, such as engineering controls, work practices, medical surveillance, and a respiratory protection program," said report co-author Dr. Rachael Bailey, an epidemic intelligence service officer at the CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Diacetyl, which is used in butter flavoring, appears to be the culprit, Bailey said. "But there are literally thousands of chemicals that are used in making these flavorings and not all of them have been evaluated, so other chemicals may cause the disease as well," she noted.
Bronchiolitis obliterans is a rare disease, said Dr. Richard Kanwal, a medical officer in CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "You don't expect to find this disease in the average worker," he said. "When we find this in a small workforce we get very concerned," he said. "One case is very rare, but when you find more than one in a workforce of 10 or 20 people, it is very striking."
Kanwal noted that there are no regulations that govern food flavoring plants. In addition, there are no regulations that govern the chemicals used in these plants. The CDC has asked manufactures of food flavorings to take steps to create safer environments, including ventilation and respiratory protection for workers in these plants.
Bailey noted that an otherwise healthy flavoring worker who develops a cough or shortness of breath needs to be evaluated to see if the condition is work-related. "That person should be evaluated for bronchiolitis obliterans," she said.
One expert agreed that more must be done to protect workers.
"Occupational lung disease is a hazard in many industries, from mining to farming to automotive work," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. "These case reports suggest the need to add the food flavoring industry to the list, and to establish and enforce suitable safeguards so that workers are protected."
But the illnesses hint at something else of far greater importance to the public at large, Katz said. "If the chemicals used in the flavoring industry are this potentially dangerous to the workers handling them, how good an idea can it be for the rest of us to be eating them? Personally, I think artificial flavors should neither be inhaled, nor ingested," he said.
Another report focused on lead levels among women of childbearing age. The CDC researchers found that while lead levels for most of the 10,527 women tested in 10 states were low, there were elevated levels among some working women, particularly those engaged in battery manufacturing.