Popcorn Workers Lung has been Plaguing Workers in the Snack Foods Industry for Years. Popcorn Workers Lung, also known as bronchiolitis obliterans, has been plaguing workers in the snack foods industry for years. An often fatal disorder, Popcorn Workers Lung has long been associated with diacetyl, a chemical used to give microwave popcorn and other snack foods a buttery flavor. But despite all the evidence linking diacetyl exposure to the onset of bronchiolitis obliterans, no agency of the federal government has sought to regulate the toxic substance. But now, Congress is taking matters into its own hands, and is considering legislation that would force the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to set limits for diacetyl exposure in the workplace.
Popcorn Workers Lung is a potentially life threatening ailment, for which the only cure is a lung transplant. In 2003 and 2004, the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health found an association between the toxic substance and the development of bronchiolitis obliterans among hundreds of workers at six Midwestern popcorn factories. In April, the Centers for Disease Control reported that workers at food flavoring factories, as well as popcorn plants, were at risk for the disease.
Up until this spring, OSHA, the agency that regulates workplace safety, had largely been silent on the link between diacetyl exposure in the workplace and Popcorn Workers Lung. Following some congressional hearings earlier this year, OSHA finally announced the start of a national program to evaluate the risk diacetyl exposure posed to workers at microwave popcorn factories. But the OSHA program did not include other segments of the snack food industry that also use diacetyl. Many in Congress have criticized OSHA’s diacetyl plan for that reason, especially because the chemical is widely used throughout the snack food industry.
Dangers of Diacetyl Exposure
Other regulatory agencies have also been slow to deal with the dangers of diacetyl exposure. The FDA, for example, still considers the chemical to be safe, despite a recent announcement that it was investigating a case of Popcorn Workers Lung in a consumer. And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) completed a study in 2005 that examined the possible health consequences faced by consumers who ate microwave popcorn made with diacetyl. So far, 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.
Just last month, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would require OSHA to take a more aggressive regulatory approach to diacetyl exposure in any workplace that uses the chemical. The measure requires that OSHA establish safe diacetyl exposure limits; air-monitoring requirements; medical surveillance standards; requirements for workers to wear protective gear when exposed to diacetyl; and regulations for safety labeling of the chemical. Following the passage of House bill, members of Senate started working on companion legislation.
The recent publicity around diacetyl exposure and Popcorn Workers Lung has caused some snack food companies to discontinue using the chemical. Recently, both ConAgra Foods and Weaver Popcorn announced that they would no longer use diacetyl in their microwave popcorns. But many other snack food companies are still exposing workers to diacetyl, leaving them at risk of developing bronchiolitis obliterans. Until regulatory agencies like OSHA step in to protect them, more people will likely become ill with Popcorn Workers Lung.