Pop Weaver, the nation’s second-largest popcorn producer, has pulled the synthetic flavoring, diacetyl, from its microwave popcorn products because of the link between exposure to the chemical and lung disease. ConAgra, the world’s largest supplier of the 3 billion bags of microwave popcorn sold each year, said Tuesday that it will eliminate the use of a controversial chemical butter flavoring linked to severe lung disease in workers from its Act II and Orville Redenbacher products.
A naturally occurring substance found in many dairy products, diacetyl was first produced synthetically in Europe and is added to thousands of products throughout the world to increase or enrich butter flavoring. The lung disease caused by diacetyl, bronchiolitis obliterans, has been found coast-to-coast in workers in plants that make and use flavorings, in candy factories and in a dozen different food production operations that use the synthetic chemical butter flavoring.
The threat was thought to be relevant only to popcorn factory workers. But then a lung specialist from Denver’s National Jewish Medical and Research Center, Dr. Cecile Rose, notified federal agencies that she may have identified the first known case of a man who ate popcorn at home and had the same disease as the workers.
Dr. Rose wrote to the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration in July, advising them of her patient and the possibility that people who pop microwave corn at home can be at risk.
The rare lung disease that Dr. Rose diagnosed in her patient — bronchiolitis obliterans — can cause death in severe cases. Lung transplants are the only hope that patients have. The disease quickly leads to breathing difficulties and is often misidentified by physicians unfamiliar with the disease.
“I am surprised that none of the regulatory agencies has called me to learn more about the case,” said the pulmonologist, but Rose added that she has received “numerous calls from industry representatives who were very interested in hearing more details than were presented in my letter.”
Rose admits that it’s difficult to make a positive link based on a single report but added, “We have no other plausible explanation.”
Weaver, the first microwave popcorn company to remove diacetyl, said it had taken its action because of concerns for consumers who were “growing more anxious” over the presence of the chemical.
Workers from ConAgra were among more than 200 employees from six Midwest microwave popcorn plants whose lungs were damaged or destroyed by exposure to the butter flavoring used in the bags.
Although diacetyl may have serious public health consequences beyond the workplace, only the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has done extensive research on diacetyl in the workplace. Other agencies bounce responsibility for diacetyl in consumer products elsewhere.
The only agency studying how much diacetyl is generated in home microwaving is the EPA, but it has been sitting on the results of its research for more than two years. It is looking at the vapors as an air pollutant. The EPA’s explanation for not sharing its finding with the public health community or other federal investigators was that it did not want to endanger its scientist’s chance of having her research published in a scientific journal.
When asked what its reaction was to Rose’s letter, the agency released this statement: “EPA scientists do cutting-edge research to protect public health. EPA’s popcorn study was of emissions, not health effect research.”