Co-op job gives taste of real world

May 20, 2004

Steve Proper's co-op job at NIOSH had him working in the lab that was testing a popcorn flavoring at the center of a nationwide debate.

Working on issues that affect people's health and safety in real life situations is one of the "perks" of Steven Proper's cooperative education job. Proper, a Lansing, Mich., senior, is a Fellow of the Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education (ORISE) in Tennessee, assigned to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

"I don't think people realize how valuable the co-op experience is in fields other than engineering," Proper said. "It's not just engineering where co-op gives you experiences that are worthwhile. Doing the kinds of research I'm doing during college makes me that much more valuable than a graduate of a traditional program," he said, adding that he feels he has an advantage over someone who may only have done summer internships.

The Chemistry major's latest co-op rotation at NIOSH couldn't have been any more up-to-date. He worked in the lab that was researching the effects of diacetyl, more commonly known as microwave popcorn butter flavoring, on the lungs and respiratory system.

NIOSH researchers suspect exposure to diacetyl, a chemical in butter flavoring, caused the health problems of former workers at the Gilster-Mary Lee Corp. plant in Jasper, Mo. Their findings may link bronchiolitis obliterans, also known as popcorn packers' lung, to vapors resulting from the mixing of powdered butter flavorings at the plant. The disease restricts and obstructs the functioning of the lungs.

Former employees are suing the manufacturers of artificial butter flavorings alleging the manufacturers knew, or should have known, the butter flavorings were hazardous and that they failed to warn workers of the dangers or to give instructions on safe use of the product.

Proper's experience in the diacetyl lab was his second co-op assignment with NIOSH. He worked in a laboratory that is part of the Pathology, Physiology and Research Branch of the government organization, assigned to the office of Jeff Fedan, a research pharmacologist for NIOSH.

"The goal of his (Fedan's) research is to understand the mechanisms in epithelial lung tissue as it relates to asthma or lung disorders," Proper said. The dictionary definition of epithelial tissue is "membranous tissue, usually in a single layer, composed of closely arranged cells separated by very little intercellular substance and forming the covering of most internal surfaces and organs and the outer surface of an animal body."

"Epithelial tissue regulates water and salt concentrations in the lungs. When you lose the epithelial tissues, you can't regulate water or salt concentrations," Proper said. A NIOSH report in the Registry of Toxic Effects (RTECS), Identification Number: EK2625000 dated June 2003, states that the health effects of diacetyl exposure may include: irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and skin, and that there is suspected cumulative lung damage in the form of bronchiolitis obliterans. The year-old report went on to say that a cause-effect relationship between diacetyl and bronchiolitis obliterans has not been established in the case of the popcorn workers, as food-processing workers with this lung disease were also exposed to other volatile food-flavoring agents.

Despite working with the chemical under laboratory conditions, adhering to strict safety standards and with good ventilation, Proper said he could feel the effects on his lungs. "What's really scary is that even though we had apparatus to ventilate the area, just passing it (diacetyl) from one fume hood to another and using relatively low concentrations, I could feel, not really pain, but a raspiness in my lungs," he said. "All of us felt the effects of this chemical just being in the same room. It showed how even a small concentration could be dangerous."

NIOSH researchers used machines designed to analyze electrical responses in animal tissues as part of their testing of diacetyl. "Animal studies are a standard practice nowadays, because animal systems are very similar to human systems," Proper said.

To test for damage, Proper said test lungs were exposed to certain concentrations of diacetyl and then researchers employed machines utilizing electrodes and chemicals to stimulate and test responses in the tissue. No response to the stimulation indicates damage has been done. "We can tell the overall function of cells within a normal range using this technology," Proper said.

Due to the Kettering three-month co-op employment/academic rotation, Proper's co-op position rotates to different labs within ORISE. "The co-op coordinator for ORISE wanted me to have experiences with a few different labs before deciding where I wanted to stay to do my thesis," he said, "so far I've done immunology/toxicology and applied pharmacology. My last trial term is this summer in molecular biochemistry." At the end of his third co-op rotation Proper will decide which area of study to pursue. He is scheduled to graduate in June 2006.

"It is like going to graduate school and working closely with a professor," said Proper." "I work closely with the researchers and just do the best that I can in the three months that I'm there."

"The people at NIOSH are the best people I've ever worked with," said Proper. They are totally professional about everything and very efficient. They are an example of a government agency that really does its job well," he added.

So far both of his co-op assignments have dealt with food analyses. Proper admits the experiences have made him think twice about what he eats. "So much of our food has less and less ingredients from nature, and if you're not careful about where your food is coming from you don't know what chemicals it may have in it. I don't freak out and not eat anything, but I'm smart about my choices." And then sometimes convenience outweighs other factors. He is, of course, a college student.

Written by Dawn Hibbard
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Information was provided by Steven Proper and the Associated Press news network