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

Emerging Science Note/Popping’s the Question

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on an EPA effort to identify the chemicals released from microwave popcorn.


CURWOOD: Just ahead: A bridge that may serve to disconnect a people from their culture. First, this note on emerging science from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: There’s nothing quite like the smell of a fresh bag of microwave popcorn. But for those who work with it day in and day out, the vapors from popcorn may have adverse health effects. Recently 30 workers filed suit against a microwave popcorn factory in Jasper, Missouri. They claim that inhaling the fumes from huge vats of popcorn butter flavoring has caused severe respiratory problems, a condition that’s come to be known as “popcorn packer’s lung.”

One worker, who has been at 20 percent lung capacity after several months at the plant, has already been awarded 20 million dollars. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency has started to look at the kinds of chemicals released into the air from popping popcorn. Over the course of several months, researchers will pop 50 different brands and flavors of microwave popcorn. They’ll analyze any volatile organic compounds or particles released into the air from the popcorn, and from the microwavable bags themselves.

A main focus of this research will be diacetyl, a compound that gives butter its aroma. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, large quantities of diacetyl can cause potentially cumulative lung damage. Federal officials stress that consumers are at little risk of respiratory disease given their limited exposure to popcorn vapors. The EPA expects to have results from its study sometime in the fall. That’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Jennifer Chu.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: Aveda - an Earth-conscious beauty company committed to preserving natural resources and finding more sustainable ways of doing business. Information available at Aveda.com; The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; The Annenberg Foundation; and, The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at wkkf.org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: Psilonaut “Third from the Sun” PI SOUNDTRACK (Thrive – 1998)]



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