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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Popcorn Production Harms Workers

Air Date: Week of

(Credit: Jennifer Percy)

One of America's favorite snack foods - popcorn - is at the center of a national health controversy. The chemical diacetyl, used to make artificial butter flavoring, has been linked to a respiratory disease called "popcorn lung" in hundreds of people. Labor unions and prominent occupational health scientists are calling on federal authorities to set an emergency standard for the chemical in the workplace. Living on Earth host Bruce Gellerman has our report.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman sitting in for Steve Curwood.

We begin our show with a story about allegations that federal regulators have failed to protect workers who make one of our favorite snack foods: Popcorn.


GELLERMAN: Popcorn is fun. Fun to make. Fun to eat.

(Credit: Jennifer Percy)

We love the stuff. Americans eat more than a billion pounds of popcorn a year. According to the industry, that's nearly 14 gallons of popcorn for every man, woman and child in the country. But for some people –workers in factories where butter flavored popcorn is produced- it's not fun. It can be fatal.

PENNELL: I do know of one girl that died from it. She was really in bad shape when she did.

GELLERMAN: In the 1990's Ed Pennell and Linda Redman worked in a microwave popcorn packing factory in Jasper, Missouri. Linda Redman died last May. One of 3 victims who died from what's called "popcorn lung disease" or bronchiolitis obliterans. The disease scars small airways in the lung so victims have to struggle to breathe. It's irreversible. There’s no treatment. Ed Pennell was also diagnosed with popcorn workers’ lung in 2000.

PENNELL: When I started getting sick it was almost like having the flu, almost. I had a nagging, hacking cough and it got worse and worse. I went into the hospital, they thought I had pneumonia. When I came out I didn't get any better. They didn't have any idea of it was.

GELLERMAN: Bronchiolitis Obliterans is a rare disease but when health inspectors from NIOSH—the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health investigated the Jasper, Missouri popcorn plant 6 years ago, they discovered 5 to 11 times the expected cases of lung disease. They also found workers at popcorn factories in 3 other Midwestern states suffering from popcorn lung.

Federal investigators traced the outbreak to a chemical called Diacetyl. Diacetyl is found in many things we eat and drink: beer, wine, vinegar. But industrial flavor manufacturers synthesize the chemical in much greater quantities. And it can become airborne in popcorn factories when it's mixed with hot oil or sprayed on kernels of corn to give them that buttery flavor.

In 2001, after discovering the disease in popcorn workers, federal researchers exposed lab rats to vapors of diacetyl similar to levels found in factories. Half the animals died in just 6 hours. The researcher called it the most dramatic case of cell death she'd ever seen.

In Missouri at least one plant dramatically lowered worker exposure to flavoring chemicals, yet these controls were never made mandatory by federal regulators
Dr. David Michaels, professor of public health at George Washington University calls it a regulatory failure.

MICHAELS: As the scientific information developed, not a single regulatory agency stepped forward to even look at the extent of the problem. OSHA, which is in charge of protecting American workers in the workplace, did absolutely nothing.

GELLERMAN: This summer, after at least 2 California popcorn workers fell gravely ill, Dr. Michaels circulated a petition. Signed by 42 prominent scientist and public health researchers, it urged federal regulators and California officials to set emergency limits for diacetyl. Right now, there is no exposure limit for the chemical. And because it never set a limit, OSHA argues there is nothing to enforce.

Now, that's not unusual. There are more than a thousand artificial ingredients suspected of causing inhalation injuries to workers but the federal government has set permissible exposure limits for less than 50 flavors.

Since the law makes it difficult to sue your employer, popcorn production workers who became ill went after the makers of the artificial butter flavor. They won 53 cases. There are a hundred more pending. John Hallagan is general counsel of the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association ---whose members were sued. But Hallagan says even before the settlements, the association was holding safety workshops and sending out bulletins to flavor makers showing them how to limit workplace exposure to diacetyl.
HALLAGAN: Obviously the safety of our workers is very, very important. We haven't waited for regulation. When we found out about the potential dangers of butter flavor from NIOSH back in September 2001, we jumped right into it and began providing assistance to our workers. At this point we would welcome regulation – science-based regulation – but we haven't waited for that.

GELLERMAN: OSHA would be responsible for coming up with those regulations, but despite repeated requests, no one from the agency was available for an interview in time for this broadcast.

Now, The Food and Drug Administration considers diecetyl safe to eat but the FDA hasn't studied what happens when the chemical is vaporized in a microwave oven.

Requests to the Food and Drug Administration for an interview referred Living on Earth Back to OSHA. Again, Dr. David Michaels of George Washington University.

MICHAELS: You would think that the FDA would step up to the plate and say well we're going to look into the problem because we know that high level exposures are killing people. So what are the effects of low level exposure? People who pop popcorn at home? And we just don' t know the answer to that.

GELLERMAN: So are there harmful effects from microwaving buttered popcorn at home? Well, turns out the EPA ---the only federal agency that would talk with us about Diacetyl ---has studied that very question. EPA scientists did an experiment—they popped 50 bags of microwave popcorn and analyzed the vapors. The results aren't final and haven't been released, but Dr. William Farland, the EPA's deputy administrator for science says consumers have nothing to fear.

FARLAND: As we do these kinds of studies if something should pop up that suggests that there is an acute risk we would always make sure the public was aware of that. We'd contact our colleagues in FDA, or the consumer product safety commission and so on.


GELLERMAN: As for workers at movie theaters who pop popcorn, no one knows if their workplace exposures are dangerous. There is no research. But investigators have found health effects in popcorn factories at levels hundreds of times lower than they expected.

Meanwhile, Ed Pennell, the popcorn worker in Jasper, Missouri, who’s been on disability for 6 years, waits for the lung transplant he needs but doesn't want.

PENNELL: Cause when you get a lung transplant, you pretty much decided how long you're going to live. I think it's 5-7 years after you get a transplant you die.

GELLERMAN: California officials will hold a meeting to consider the petition for an emergency standard for Diacetyl at the end of September. So far there's no word from OSHA on when it might consider the request.




Occupational Health and Safety Administration Standards

Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association

The Popcorn Board

Dr. David Michaels, George Washington School of Public Health and Health Services


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