Diacetyl Gets the Boot over Popcorn Workers Lung ConcernsDec 18, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP
Popcorn Workers Lung Concerns have Led Several Large Microwave Popcorn Makers to Remove Diacetyl from their Products
Popcorn Workers Lung concerns have led several large microwave popcorn makers to remove diacetyl from their products, and safer microwave popcorns could be on store shelves soon. Popcorn Workers Lung—or Bronchiolitis obliterans—is a rare and life-threatening disease that destroys the small airways of the lungs. Diacetyl, a chemical that gives foods like popcorn, candy, and baked goods that creamy, buttery taste, is linked to Popcorn Lungs, a disease that has attacked popcorn factory employees and was recently discovered in a man who ate at least two bags of buttery microwave popcorn daily for several years and reportedly enjoyed inhaling the fumes as the popcorn came out of the microwave. The man’s lung problems were linked to breathing diacetyl vapors.
The Bush administration, some business groups, and others have said there is insufficient evidence to warrant government limits on diacetyl and a federal official testified at a congressional hearing that diacetyl is suspicious, but there's no clear evidence it is the one chemical causing Popcorn Lung. The doctor who detected the trend says the science is solid.
Some Workers Exposed to the Airborne Chemical in Plants Making Microwave Popcorn have been Diagnosed with Bronchiolitis Obliterans
Some workers exposed to the airborne chemical in plants making microwave popcorn have been diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). And while the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has not issued specific regulations regarding diacetyl, it did publish a Safety and Health Information Bulletin in September with recommendations for the chemical’s use. OSHA has been criticized for being lax, but they argue that after incidents with Popcorn Lung in a Jasper, Missouri plant they alerted their regional offices, ordering a review; many consider this too little too late. OSHA also denied a labor petition asking for an emergency workplace limit on the chemical, claiming there is inconclusive evidence it causes the illness or that exposure constitutes grave danger. NIOSH investigated Jasper and confirmed the diacetyl-Popcorn Lung link; investigators identified or reviewed dozens of cases in popcorn and flavor-making plants nationwide, confirming three deaths. Some cases go back to the 1980s and there are reports of sick workers at candy and potato chip plants waiting to be investigated.
ConAgra—the nation's largest producer of popcorn under its Orville Redenbacher and Act II brands—has removed diacetyl from its microwave popcorn, citing concern for its workers' health. ConAgra manufactures more than half of the nation's microwave popcorn and began reformulating its popcorn over a year ago as a worker-safety issue and began removing diacetyl from its production lines in November; ConAgra is in the final stages of removing diacetyl from all its products now. "Our focus was on the worker-safety issue, the handling of the concentrated flavoring," says Al Bolles, vice president of research for the company. “By January, none of the company's products will contain it,” he says. The nation's second-largest producer, General Mills, sells popcorn under the Pop Secret brand and also removed diacetyl from its products in October, spokesman Tom Forsythe says. The third-largest producer, American Pop Corn Co. of Sioux City, Iowa, sells under the Jolly Time brand and is reformulating its flavorings to remove diacetyl. "We're just weeks away from converting our entire line, so it's all but done," says spokesman Tom Elsen.