Recycled: Obliterating your lungs

A man who eats a lot of popcorn (2 bags a day) has been diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans (via NYTimes). The fact that diacetyl is still used is rediculous so I re-posted the popcorn/obliterated lung piece. What is interesting about this is that we've all known for a long time that this is harmful for workers, but only just now are the companies getting out of using diacetyl. Apparently this is due to some EPA study that the public doesn't have (read more about this at The Pump Handle). The possible negative outcomes from lawsuits must have outweighed the cost of moving to an alternative. Hopefully we can see a ban now so that the off-brand manufacturers have to follow suit.

What is additionally sad about this is that workers can be harmed all the time and the outcry is pretty minimal but if one consumer gets harmed it's a pretty big deal. Why are workers different? Do we think that because they are paid, it's okay to expose them to dangerous levels of chemicals? Or are we just selfish and only worry about problems when they arrive at our doorstep?

Workers Obliterate Their Lungs(originally posted May 7th, 2007)
The WaPo reports today that Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D) has introduced a bill to ban diacetyl use by 2010. The chemical is an artificial butter flavoring most commonly used in microwave popcorn. Numerous studies have found links between the chemical used by flavor workers and a rare disease called bronchiolitis obliterans. For those of you who aren't 2000 yr old Romans, that means that the bronchioles and some of the smaller bronchi are obliterated by masses made up of fiberous tissue. It's like sticking marbles into the networks of tubes in your lung that connect fresh air to the alveoli, the little sacs where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged with the blood. As you Romans can imagine, that's haud sanus. According to the WaPo, flavoring manufacturers have paid out more than $100 million due to health lawsuits. An excellent case study and background to this whole mess can be found at Defending Science.

OSHA has known it's a problem since 1999 but hasn't done anything because it's either too weak, or it doesn't want to, or some combination. The state OSHA isn't really moving on it either. Oh, I'm sorry, according to a MMWR from the CDC, "In April 2006, Cal/OSHA and CDHS implemented a cooperative intervention program to encourage the state's entire flavor-manufacturing industry to implement the same measures." Encourage. That's the kind of protection our workers deserve, isn't it? Soon we'll move on to 'friendly nudges', 'pleading looks', and 'good thoughts'.

Nothing will be done unless it's regulated strongly, even by good companies and here's why: Let say Bob's Flavor Inc. wants to do the right thing and use an alternative flavoring that won't hurt his workers. Bob knows, however, that this will drive up his prices and he'll be driven out of the market by someone willing to do the wrong thing for a competitive advantage (See Amvac post again). Everyone is tied to the lowest cost operation, so the only way to make it safe for Bob to do the right thing is to level the playing field so that everyone has to do the right thing. So, Californians, tell your reps to support the bill. Do it for the workers. Do it for Bob.

Microwave popcorn just has problems all over the place. The coating on the inside of the packages give off PFCs that break down into PFOA when ingested (See the 'Chemical Trespass' post on May 2nd for more). The thing is, it's just as easy to make better tasting, cheaper microwave popcorn yourself. I use a recipe from Alton Brown. I skip the olive oil and after popping just toss with some melted butter. Real butter, of course!

More like this

By David Michaels As regular readers of this blog know, worker health advocates have been pushing for regulation of diacetyl, an artificial butter flavoring chemical thatâs been linked to bronchiolitis obliterans, a terrible, sometimes fatal lung disease. Today, in anticipation of two Congressional…
The WaPo reports today that Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D) has introduced a bill to ban diacetyl use by 2010. The chemical is an artificial butter flavoring most commonly used in microwave popcorn. Numerous studies have found links between the chemical used by flavor workers and a rare disease…
You've probably never heard of bronchiolitis obliterans and you certainly don't want to have it. The name tells the story. The bronchioles are the smaller airway tubes that transport oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from the portions of your lungs where the gases are exchanged in the blood. If you…
The lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans came to be called âpopcorn workers lungâ because this once-rare disease started afflicting workers from microwave popcorn plants with an alarming frequency. Scientists traced the disease, which destroys sufferersâ lungs, to the butter-flavoring chemical…

I just threw out two ACT II bags yesterday after reading about this. Thanks for your article on it, btw. I've bookmarked your blog now. The articles on teflon/PFOAs are also great.

Question: That recipe says to staple the bag twice. Don't the staples cause sparks in the microwave?

Question: That recipe says to staple the bag twice. Don't the staples cause sparks in the microwave?

They don't actually. I've tried it and had no problems. AB talks about this in the Good Eats episode too. Basically as long as you don't overstaple you'll be fine.

What is additionally sad about this is that workers can be harmed all the time and the outcry is pretty minimal but if one consumer gets harmed it's a pretty big deal.

My thoughts exactly, AT. I think the problem is confounded by the media. If MSM feels like people won't care about factory workers, they won't go out of their way to report the story. Everyone knows that consumers will sit up and pay attention when the story's about them, though, so that's a story the media can jump on. It's like factory workers are the unwilling canaries in the coalmine who no one cares to listen to.

You nailed it -- we're selfish, and only care when it might affect us personally. "We" being the typical American consumer/voter. Remember, we're the same people who want less government regulation, not more, and who don't want to fund the watchdog agencies we do have.

Corporate interest and greed have gotten way out of hand here in the US of A.Let us look out for each other and demand responsible behavior from the EPA and US corporations.

I do occasional forensic toxicology (I'm an MD, PhD toxicologist). In the early 1990's I had a case involving several employees of a spice packaging company with bronchiolitis obliterans. At the time, nobody could figure out what the etiologic agent was. But in retrospect, it was probably diacetyl. At least I hope so-- I'd hate to think there is another such compound out there.

That said-- As Parecelsus tells us-- "Everything is poison, and there is poison in everything. Only the dose makes a thing not a poison". That is, there are presumably dose effects here. Otherwise, this would have been spotted years ago.

They don't actually. I've tried it and had no problems. AB talks about this in the Good Eats episode too. Basically as long as you don't overstaple you'll be fine.

Well staples don't create sparks in the microwave its just that you have to keep a track on it so that they are not overcooked....I liked this blog post...nice one

Everything is poison, and there is poison in everything. Only the dose makes a thing not a poison". That is, there are presumably dose effects here. Otherwise, this would have been spotted years ago.

Hi friends,
Thank you very much to keep us informed about this. I never knew that eating pop corn is so harmful well now I am avoiding it. Do keep us update.

Its good that you have provided this information here.. I had also started eating a lot of popcorns but now after reading this i'll improve myself..

I think if more people valued their health more less employees would stand for being exposed to potentially harmful stuff and we would force change.