Popcorn Workers Lung Risk Known for Years, Yet Manufacturers Continued Use of DiacetylSep 10, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP, LLP Earlier this month, ConAgra Foods and Weaver Popcorn dropped diacetyl from the ingredients used in their microwave popcorns over concerns that the chemical could cause a deadly disorder known as Popcorn Workers Lung. But it seems ConAgra, Weaver Popcorn and other manufacturers knew about the risks posed by diacetyl several years ago. And despite there being hundreds of documented cases of Popcorn Workers Lung among factory workers in the snack industry, an investigation into the risks diacetyl poses to consumers has been withheld from the public for nearly two years at the behest of the microwave popcorn industry.
When ConAgra Foods and Weaver Popcorn announced their plans to discontinue using diacetyl, they did so with great fanfare. Other popcorn producers, representing 80 percent of the industry, have followed suit. All claim that the decision to stop using the chemical was made with the best interest of customers and workers in mind. But as early as 2002, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) blamed diacetyl for high rates of bronchiolitis obliterans –also known as Popcorn Workers Lung – among workers in the flavorings industry. And in 2004, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health linked diacetyl to an outbreak of the disease in hundreds of workers at six Midwestern popcorn factories. The association between diacetyl and Popcorn Workers Lung is nothing new, yet the microwave popcorn industry is only taking action now.
One possible reason behind the manufacturers’ decision to quit using diacetyl could be a study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that examined the possible health consequences faced by consumers who ate microwave popcorn made with diacetyl. The study was completed in 2005, yet only the popcorn industry has been allowed to see the final EPA report. The EPA claims that it is holding back the study so that it can undergo peer review, and in order to protect industry trade secrets. But a review of the EPA’s records by Cox Newspapers shows that the agency bowed to industry pressure by not releasing preliminary results of the investigation. In a 2004 email to an EPA scientist, a Weaver Popcorn vice president asked the agency to withhold preliminary results of the study, saying that it could “irreparably damage the industry”. A few days later, the EPA agreed to withhold the study’s early findings.
Late last week, as the issue of diacetyl and Popcorn Workers Lung made headlines, the EPA announced that its diacetyl study would be published in a scientific journal in the next month or so. That announcement came after the Food & Drug Administration confirmed that it was investigating a case of Popcorn Workers Lung in a man with no ties to the popcorn industry. The victim, a self-described “popcorn addict” had been eating two bags of microwave popcorn everyday for 15 years before being diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans. In the 13 months since the EPA provided microwave popcorn makers with the results of the diacetyl study, Americans have consumed more than 750 million pounds of popcorn. How many factory workers and consumers might run the risk of developing Popcorn Workers Lung as a result of their exposure to diacetyl during that time is not known.