National Consumers League

From the Experts Blog

NCL staff is hard at work for you playing watchdog on a variety of issues. Get to know the latest From the Experts!

Are We Finally Making Progress on Popcorn Lung?

by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Butter-flavored microwave popcorn has long been a consumer favorite, but the chemical that gives it that buttery flavor – diacetyl – has caused serious lung impairment, known as “popcorn lung,” so called because many cases have occurred among factory workers who make the product. This is a concern for workers and consumers alike. On October 17, 2007, I attended a “roundtable discussion” outside Washington DC called by Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to discuss “popcorn lung” disease.

I went because I wanted to hear these federal officials explain why they haven’t done anything yet to protect workers from “popcorn lung” despite having become aware of the problem years ago. I never heard a good explanation, but OSHA did say it would look at regulating the use of diacetyl. I also went out of concern for consumers who eat microwave popcorn and are therefore exposed to the chemical that has made workers sick.

It seems that the government called this meeting after the U.S. House of Representatives passed a recent bill (H.R. 2693) ordering OSHA to develop interim standards limiting diacetyl exposure by workers in flavor manufacturing plants and microwave popcorn factories. OSHA officials, scientists, environmental health specialists, labor union representatives, and lawyers representing workers who were exposed to diacetyl were all at this meeting. One of those workers, a guy from Missouri named Eric Peoples who is pictured here on the left, was there, and he was wearing his breathing apparatus, having contracted lung disease during the short 1 ½ years he worked at a Jasper, MO plant making butter-flavored popcorn. In 2000, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted an investigation of the Jasper plant. Peoples and 8 of his fellow employees, who had worked in the plant anywhere from 8 months to 17 years, were diagnosed with “popcorn lung,” known in the medical community as “brochiolitis obliterans.” Five of the employees had worked in the room where butter flavorings and oil were mixed. The other four had worked on packaging lines where popcorn and the oil/flavorings are added to microwaveable bags and packaged for shipment. All of the employees experienced similar symptoms, including progressive shortness of breath, persistent cough, and unusual fatigue. Five of the nine employees were placed on a lung transplant candidate list, and one of the employees died in April 2006 before receiving a lung transplant. She had worked for 18 months at the plant during the mid-1990s. NIOSH surveyed other plants and identified six additional employees with similar “popcorn lung” symptoms. So we know the production of butter-flavored popcorn involving diacetyl isn't perfectly safe for workers, and the government is starting to do something about it. Are the products safe for consumers? Stay tuned for an upcoming blog on that.

Do Not Call Me. Seriously.

by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Five years ago, I had the pleasure of putting my home phone number on the first national Do Not Call list. Dramatically seeing the number of unwanted telemarketing calls drop was a joy for my family. Back when the list was created in 2002, the plan was that consumers who added their phone numbers to the list would remain on it for five years. When the five years were up, they’d have to sign up again. (Unless, of course, they missed being interrupted at dinner time and wanted the calls to resume.)

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission, the agency responsible for the implementation of the list, announced it would not be purging the numbers after five years and require that people re-up. The U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection of the Energy and Commerce Committee heard testimony from the FTC last week pledging to keep the list going without dropping any names. Great news for consumers! Further steps taken by Congress recently indicate our phone numbers will remain protected. House and Senate committees passed bills making it permanent. We see this as a win-win, and I was on National Public Radio’s Marketplace earlier this week to talk about it.

NCL Criticizes 'Gap' in Retailer's Audit System

The National Consumers League, which convenes the Child Labor Coalition, just issued a statement in reaction to admissions from Gap Inc. that one of the vendors somewhere along its supply chain had used the services of bonded child laborers. Turns out the products were in a line of clothing that would have ended up at GapKids. Yuck. NCL's take on it? Good that Gap pulled the products. Bad that it came at this cost. Read the statement here.

Bonjour from the OECD: What's a "global marketplace"?

by Susan Grant There's a lot of talk about the "global marketplace," but what does that mean for the average consumer? It's not just about buying something online from a business in a foreign country. It also encompasses the fact that many goods and services sold in the United States are produced in or provided by other countries. It's also true that many of the companies that American consumers deal with operate in other countries as well, so the policies and practices of those businesses can affect consumers on a global scale. paris.jpgOne important organization that looks at consumer protection globally is the Committee on Consumer Policy at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD represents 30 major democractic industrialized countries from around the world. NCL is sometimes invited by the U.S. government to be part of its delegation to the CCP. At the fall meeting of the CCP, which just concluded in Paris, many issues that are important to U.S. consumers were discussed, including mobile commerce, online identity theft, protecting consumers in the telecommunications market, consumer education, and the role of business self-regulation. I gave an update on the activities of the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue, a coalition of 60+ consumer organizations from the U.S. and Europe that provides input to governments on both sides of the Atlantic about how to ensure that consumers have strong, consistent rights and protections.

Are banks doing enough to protect their customers from fraud?

by Susan Grant The answer, in my opinion, is that they can and should do more, and that was the focus of a speech I gave on October 16 a conference organized by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the federal agency that regulates national banks. The conference brought together people who handle consumers' questions and complaints from the OCC, the Federal Reserve Bank, and the Office of Thrift Supervision. I used four problems -- the current mortgage foreclosure crisis, identity theft, unauthorized debits from consumers' bank accounts, and the explosion of fake check scams -- to provide examples of how banks can help their customers avoid becoming fraud victims. I also asserted that the people who work in the bank regulators' helplines can play an important role in educating both consumers and banks and in spotting serious problems that may need to be addressed quickly.