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Are food additives leading to a serious illness in workers?

When you hear the phrase "safe for human consumption," what do you think of? Do you think of a product that is completely safe and shouldn't be worried about? Or do you think of a product that is safe for consumption but still potentially harmful in other ways?

If you're like most people, you probably think that if something is safe for human consumption, then it is completely safe altogether. Why bother continuing to test something to see if it could be potentially harmful if it's safe for humans to eat? But this chain of thought is changing is areas like the food manufacturing industry where concerns are growing in regards to food additives and worker safety.

The additive in question is called diacetyl -- a chemical used in the manufacturing of microwave popcorn. According to a series of lawsuits, constant exposure to the chemical has caused some workers to develop a lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans that makes it difficult to breathe. In some cases, it has been known to be fatal.

In the food manufacturing industry, more than 95 percent of food additives don't have exposure limits, explains David Duffy who is a "practice leader in the industrial hygiene unit of ESIS." Because the chemicals are safe for human consumption, not a lot of thought or concern was put into the harm they could cause on a larger scale, which meant recommendations for safe handling fell by the wayside in most cases. Now because of claims for workers' compensation, some in the industry are rethinking safety recommendations for food additives and are suggesting an update to regulations that haven’t been updated since the 1970s.

As we have said before on this blog, it is an employer's job to make sure that they are providing a safe working environment for their employees. But if safety guidelines haven't been updated in decades, employers may not even know that they are putting their employees in harm's way until it's too late. This creates a dangerous work environment that employers may have a difficult time remedying without the help of federal regulators down the road.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "Worker Risks From Chemical Flavorings Get Manufacturers’ Attention," Ben Dipietro, Feb. 3, 2015

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