It's no secret that diacetyl, the chemical that gives butter-flavored microwave popcorn it's buttery-ness, has caused serious and sometimes fatal lung disease in workers in flavoring and popcorn factories. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health released a study earlier this year confirming that long-term exposure to the chemical in its vaporized form causes swelling and scaring in pulmonary passageways, resulting in a form of lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans.
Does that effect you, the popcorn-consumer? Good question. You could try asking the EPA -- they know, but they're not telling.
An EPA study completed in 2003 could likely tell us what level of household exposure is typical, and what level is risky. I'd love to know -- wouldn't you? But the EPA has only released the study to the popcorn and flavoring industries whose business may be affected by it. They were ostensibly given the study in order to verify that it contained no proprietary information, but they've had it for years now. I know those things can be pretty dense, but really, it shouldn't be taking them quite this long to get through.
After all, knowing that diacetyl exposure is dangerous could really help people. Take for example the Colorado furniture salesman whose case is profiled in the New York Times today. For years now he's been popping himself some corn twice a day and tearing open the bag to relish that buttery smell. Wouldn't it have been nice if the EPA had let him know that he was exposing himself to unsafe levels of a demonstrably dangerous chemical?
Pop Weaver, one of the major brands of microwave popcorn, announced recently that they will stop using diacetyl. ConAgra, the nation's largest producer of microwave popcorn, didn't hop on the bandwagon until the threat to consumers made news this week. Both companies claim that their discontinued use of the product is because of customer concerns -- not, they insist, because the chemical is unsafe. That's awfully altruistic of them, don't you think? I can't remember the last time an industry stopped using a perfectly safe chemical just because some customers were concerned, especially when those customers had few alternative options.
But I didn't come here to discuss industry finagling, so let's get back to the point: the EPA has dropped the ball on this one. As unfortunate as it is that it took a case of "popcorn workers' lung" in a consumer to bring large-scale media attention to this story, this is the perfect opportunity for the agency to catch it on the bounce and release the study to the public.
The Pump Handle has everything you need for a more complete history of bronchiolitis obliterans and flavoring workers. Kudos to them for being on top of this story from the get-go.