by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
Butter-flavored microwave popcorn has long been a consumer favorite, but the chemical that gives it that buttery flavor – diacetyl – has caused serious lung impairment, known as “popcorn lung,” so called because many cases have occurred among factory workers who make the product. This is a concern for workers and consumers alike. On October 17, 2007, I attended a “roundtable discussion” outside Washington DC called by Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to discuss “popcorn lung” disease.
I went because I wanted to hear these federal officials explain why they haven’t done anything yet to protect workers from “popcorn lung” despite having become aware of the problem years ago. I never heard a good explanation, but OSHA did say it would look at regulating the use of diacetyl. I also went out of concern for consumers who eat microwave popcorn and are therefore exposed to the chemical that has made workers sick.
It seems that the government called this meeting after the U.S. House of Representatives passed a recent bill (H.R. 2693) ordering OSHA to develop interim standards limiting diacetyl exposure by workers in flavor manufacturing plants and microwave popcorn factories.
OSHA officials, scientists, environmental health specialists, labor union representatives, and lawyers representing workers who were exposed to diacetyl were all at this meeting. One of those workers, a guy from Missouri named Eric Peoples who is pictured here on the left, was there, and he was wearing his breathing apparatus, having contracted lung disease during the short 1 ½ years he worked at a Jasper, MO plant making butter-flavored popcorn.
In 2000, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted an investigation of the Jasper plant. Peoples and 8 of his fellow employees, who had worked in the plant anywhere from 8 months to 17 years, were diagnosed with “popcorn lung,” known in the medical community as “brochiolitis obliterans.” Five of the employees had worked in the room where butter flavorings and oil were mixed. The other four had worked on packaging lines where popcorn and the oil/flavorings are added to microwaveable bags and packaged for shipment. All of the employees experienced similar symptoms, including progressive shortness of breath, persistent cough, and unusual fatigue. Five of the nine employees were placed on a lung transplant candidate list, and one of the employees died in April 2006 before receiving a lung transplant. She had worked for 18 months at the plant during the mid-1990s. NIOSH surveyed other plants and identified six additional employees with similar “popcorn lung” symptoms.
So we know the production of butter-flavored popcorn involving diacetyl isn’t perfectly safe for workers, and the government is starting to do something about it. Are the products safe for consumers? Stay tuned for an upcoming blog on that.