Employees at microwave popcorn plants around the country may have a serious health problem on their hands. Recently, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued a report detailing the severe lung disorders that dozens of employees at the Glister-Mary Lee Corporation's Jasper, Mo. popcorn factory have developed.
Scores of workers at the plant have developed bronchitis and asthma. In addition, eight Jasper popcorn plant employees have developed bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare lung disease which can be fatal. Six of the eight are currently awaiting lung transplants.
NIOSH believes that artificial butter flavoring used in the manufacturing process is causing these health problems. The agency is particularly concerned about diacetyl, a primary ingredient in many artificial butter products. The long-term effects of diacetyl exposure are unknown.
At this time, NIOSH officials believe that consumption of artificial butter flavored microwave popcorn remains safe. However, the agency admits that laboratory animals that ingested large quantities of the artificial flavoring developed lung diseases and died.
"When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on."
Notes: 1) No IDLH has been established. One of four rats died after a 6-hour exposure to vapors from heated (55°C) artificial butter flavoring containing 285 ppm diacetyl (~64% of total VOCs), but no deaths occurred among groups of six rats exposed to 203 ppm diacetyl (~68% of total VOCs) or 352 ppm diacetyl (~61% of total VOCs) (Hubbs et al., 2002). 2) A cause-effect relationship between diacetyl and bronchiolitis obliterans has not been established, as food-processing workers with this lung disease were also exposed to other volatile food-flavoring agents (Kreiss et al., 2002). 3) Diacetyl is known to react with the amino acid arginine in proteins (Riordan, 1979) and inhibits enzymes that are important for protecting cells from oxidative damage, such as superoxide dismutase (Borders et al., 1985) and glutathione reductase (Boggaram and Mannervik, 1982).