Workers in the food-flavoring manufacturing industry may be at risk of developing an irreversible type of damage to the lungs, according to a study presented the American Thoracic Society International Conference in Atlanta on May 20. Researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine found five workers at a food flavoring manufacturing plant who developed bronchiolitis obliterans, a type of lung damage to the lining of the airways that leads to narrowing of the small airways and irreversible airway obstruction.

“There are hundreds of substances used in the food flavoring manufacturing industry, and most have never been studied in terms of how they may affect the respiratory health of workers,” said James E. Lockey, M.D., the study’s lead researcher. “These workers come into contact with large amounts of flavoring agents, sometimes in high concentrations, during the manufacturing process.”

He noted that eating and drinking products with food flavorings do not pose a respiratory health threat. “The ingestion of food flavoring agents are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,” he said. “But inhaling these substances in high concentrations into the lungs during the manufacturing process does not fall under this regulatory agency.”

All five workers had normal lung function before beginning work at the plant, Lockey said. They developed moderate to severe non-reversible airway obstruction over a short period of time while working, but after they stopped working in the food flavoring manufacturing industry, they did not experience any further loss of lung function, he said. The study identified a number of substances that might potentially be harmful if inhaled in high concentrations, most notably acetaldehyde and capsaicin.