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Toxic Popcorn Chemical Makes Thousands Ill, Yet FDA and Other Agencies Ignore Risk

Sep 5, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP, LLP

Toxic popcorn sounds like a misnomer.   Low in calories and high in fiber, popcorn is often seen as a healthy alternative to other snack foods.   But a toxic chemical called diacetyl that is used to give microwave popcorn a buttery flavor has been linked to a debilitating lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans – otherwise known as “Popcorn Workers Lung.”   Now, one of the largest microwave popcorn makers in the country has decided to discontinue use of diacytle.   But despite findings that tie diacytle exposure to the dangerous lung disorder, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) insists that the chemical is safe for consumers.  And most other microwave popcorn makers continue to include diacytle in their product – even though they don’t always list the chemical on ingredient labels.

Bronchiolitis obliterans
is a form of fixed lung disease that makes it difficult for air to flow out of the lungs.  The irreversible condition is rare, but disproportionately affects workers in the flavors industry – one reason why it has become known as  Popcorn Workers Lung.  Between 2003 and 2004, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health investigated the cases of hundreds of workers at six Midwestern popcorn plants who had developed the debilitating disease.  The investigation concluded that exposure to diacetyl was probably behind these illnesses.  And recently, a new European study suggested that workers exposed to diacetyl have a much higher risk of developing the condition.   

Concerns over diacetyl were enough to cause Pop Weaver, one of the largest microwave popcorn makers in the country, to take it out of its popcorns.  Pop Weaver’s decision is probably going to be good for its bottom line.   In the past several years, workers in the flavor industry have won millions in lawsuits and settlements from snack makers after developing Popcorn Workers Lung.  But despite the connection to diacetyl and lung disease, both the FDA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have refused to investigate the chemical’s safety issues. Years ago, the FDA declared diacetyl safe for consumers, and it has not looked at the chemical since that time.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has studied diacetyl.  In 2003, the EPA began an investigation to see if any diacetyl was released when microwave popcorn was popped.  That study was completed last year, but so far, the EPA only released the results to the popcorn industry.  Though the study is secret, Pop Weaver has acknowledge that the EPA’s findings where partly responsible for its decision to quit using diacetyl.  Other companies, including ConAgra Foods, the maker of Orville Redenbacher popcorn, continue to use diacetyl in their popcorns.  

Many consumer groups have criticized the EPA’s decision to allow the popcorn industry to view its study results before making them public.  The EPA defends its decision, claiming that the move is necessary to protect manufacturer’s trade secrets.  That, the EPA says, is the only way to insure that food processors will participate in such studies.  

Meanwhile, as the EPA keeps its popcorn study secret, and FDA turns a blind eye to health risks associated with diacetyl, thousands of workers in the flavorings industry continue to face health problems due to their exposure.  There is no treatment for Popcorn Workers Lung, save for a lung transplant.  But it appears that many more people will have to become sick before the government agencies meant to protect them bother to take any action.


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