California finally moves to control butter flavoring and end popcorn lung. What about the rest of the U.S.?

by Andrew Schneider on October 8, 2009

Why is it taking years to protect workers and consumers from illness and death from butter flavoring used in thousands of foods?

It’s not like it’s a secret that factory workers exposed to vapors from chemical butter substitute have contracted the sometimes deadly and rare disorder called popcorn lung.

More than nine years ago, the illness was traced to workers in microwave popcorn plants throughout the Midwest where, eventually, hundreds were diagnosed with the irreversible disease.

Francisco Herrera lost 70 percent of lung use from diacetyl exposure.   Photo by A. Schneider

Francisco Herrera lost 70 percent of lung use from diacetyl exposure. Photo by A. Schneider

But it wasn’t just popcorn workers.

In 2006, while working at the Baltimore Sun, I wrote about several employees of California flavoring plants that worked with the diacetyl-based concoction and were sickened by the disease. One, Francisco Herrera, a young father, lost 70 percent of his lung capacity and could no longer lift his children.

In other stories that year, I reported on flavoring workers from coast-to-coast diagnosed with the disease, which is called bronchiolitis obliterans, and causes the destruction of the small airways in the lung.

Occupational medicine experts at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and California’s health and worker safety agencies responded almost immediately to determine how widespread the diacetyl problem was.  However, in California, their efforts were blocked by the flavoring industry and their powerful lobbyists who claimed all was fine.

It wasn’t.

Finally, this week, California regulators have unveiled a first-in-the-nation proposal to control exposures to the potentially deadly flavorings chemical diacetyl.

The standard, which will be discussed at one last public meeting next month, would apply to all flavor and food manufacturing facilities that use diacetyl and flavorings that contain 1 percent or greater concentration of the chemical.

Companies using diacetly will be required to do at least the following:

  • Assess the concentration of airborne diacetyl each employee is exposed to while working.
  • Use engineering and work practice controls to reduce diacetyl and ensure that employees wear protective face masks when needed.
  • Perform medical surveillance of workers, including health questionnaires and pulmonary function tests.
  • Report any “flavor-related” diagnosis of fixed obstructive lung disease within 24 hours of becoming aware of it.
  • While California authorities are concerned primarily with 30 diacetly using companies their state, NIOSH is responsible about workers in the thousands of other companies nationwide that are presumed to use diacetyl or its substitutes. I say presumed because the manufacturers and wholesalers of the chemical have repeatedly refused to identify their customers to the public health investigators

    Many in the flavoring industry still argue that diacetyl has not been proven the cause of the rare and life-threatening disease. However, Dr. Kay Kreiss and her colleagues at NIOSH – who have been tracking worker exposure to diacetyl for almost a decade – have shown repeatedly that workers exposed to the highest cumulative diacetyl doses had the greatest risk of having breathing abnormalities.

    The NIOSH team continues to pursuit the risk from exposure to diacetyl and the untested chemical butter substitutes that the food industry insists are safe.  But several major industrial users are being far from helpful.

    Those concerned about diacetyl exposure are waiting to see what happens at the federal worker safety level.

    The newly named head of OSHA – David Michaels ­– and the acting agency head – Jordon Barab – both have years of stridently demanding federal action to protect workers and consumers from this butter flavoring.

    I guess we’ll wait to see what they do now that they have the power to make a difference.

    Here is a link to the proposed diacetyl standard.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Linda October 9, 2009 at 03:57

All this research with factory workers and diacetyl, has there been any research with the rest of the population? I am a female,non factory worker that was diagnosed with Bronchiolitis Obliterans three years ago. I lost 70% of my lung capacity and my doctors have no idea how I developed such a rare disease. I did eat microwave buttered popcorn at least 3-4 times a week, a few weeks at a time. Can this chemical be the cause of my condition? If so, can there be other foods that contain diacetyl that I and the rest of the population consume which can cause such a life threatening disease? Before I was diagnosed with BO, I was told by doctors that I had asthma but medications did not help. How many people out there are being treated for asthma and are finding the same results? How many of these people have been consuming foods with this chemical?

Bruce Francois October 16, 2009 at 14:27

Schneider –

Diacetyl might be a lot more damaging than people realize. Although I am the only person I know who does not work in a popcorn plant who has developed a sensitivity to diacetyl, there must be many more. When I was 22, I was in a snack bar about 2-4 hours a day as part my duties in the USAF pilot training program (newbies get stuck with extra duties). There was always someone microwaving popcorn or else I was busy making more coffee (which can have diacetyl, too, as can many other foods). Countless Air Force lieutenants are assigned this mundane job, as are employees behind the myriad snack bars across our country in Wal-Mart, movie theaters, etc.

My fate is that now I get an asthma-like reaction from most popcorn fumes when other people can’t even smell it. At my office, the cross-ventilated fumes from fresh microwave popcorn 50 feet away will tickle my throat and cause constriction in my chest (not terribly bad, but anything messing up your lungs is not certainly not good!). I will know about the popcorn before *anyone* smells it.

Anyway, for the industry to ignore this is b.s. Movie theater workers must be getting incredible exposure and certainly some will develop sensitivity and perhaps tissue damage. If they develop a sensitivity, who knows what cascading effects that can have. I remember a time I had a cold and some jackass waved popcorn under my nose as a joke. I instantly had trouble breathing along with a terrible cough. I can’t imagine how awfwul this would be for someone with other pulmonary illnesses. Keep the good work up.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: