Fanning the Fumes

Deborah Cassell, managing editor

Forget the impending presidential race. Nevermind the war in Iraq. Ignore the buzz about Lindsay Lohan’s return to rehab, Nicole Richie’s pregnancy and Britney Spears’ descent into madness. (That’s old news, anyway.) As I write this, the biggest headline on newsstands, Web sites and morning shows is: “Popcorn May Cause Lung Cancer.”
Stop the presses! Headers might as well read “Popcorn: The Silent Killer,” for all the commotion these findings are causing. Are they saying that this tasty whole grain snack, a favorite accompaniment to late Sunday afternoon movies (preferably those starring Elvis Presley), might be harmful to my health?
Actually, it’s the delicious scent that’s the culprit. Yes, that unmistakably tantalizing buttery smell (unless some colleague has burned a bag) that floats through many an office space around 3 p.m. each day could be killing you.
Okay, okay … Let’s not jump the gun here. Sure, sources ranging from the Associated Press to NBC’s Today show are reporting that consumers who (too often) breathe in (massive amounts of) microwave popcorn fumes containing an ingredient called diacetyl could (I repeat, could) end up contracting bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome (BOS), an incurable disease that causes thickening and scarring of the lungs. But aside from incidences of illness among plant employees who work closely with diacetyl, there only is one known case of BOS that might (I repeat, might) be linked to the chemical — a butter flavoring also found in pastries, cake mixes, flour, cookies, crackers, frozen foods, potato chips and candy.
Members of the food industry already were aware that some workers in facilities that produce popcorn suffer from what is commonly referred to as “popcorn lung.” However, after Denver’s National Jewish Medical and Research Center informed various federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, that a popcorn-addicted patient had been diagnosed with BOS, media outlets began reporting that the general public could be in danger … hence all the hoopla.
As a result, companies have begun removing diacetyl from their products. At press time, ConAgra Foods (maker of Orville Redenbacher, Act II and Jiffy Pop), General Mills (manufacturer of Pop Secret) and Weaver Popcorn Co. (producer of the Pop Weaver brand) had made the decision to do so.
In an August press release from Weaver Popcorn, company president Mike Weaver noted that although the ingredient contributes to its product’s buttery taste, “consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about this issue, so we’ve taken it out of our flavorings.” New formulations of Pop Weaver’s products hit shelves that same month.
Other manufacturers are touting the fact that their offerings have long been safe. For example, in a September press release, Warren Struhl, co-founder and CEO of Dale and Thomas Popcorn, said, “Because of our commitment to the safety of our consumers, growers and constituents, we have spent time looking into this matter and are pleased to acknowledge that concerns over diacetyl are exclusive to the chemical version, which is not present in any Dale and Thomas Popcorn or Popcorn, Indiana products.”
However, popcorn makers might soon be forced to eliminate diacetyl, if lawmakers get their wish. This June, representatives from California — which monitors its use through the Flavor Industry Safety and Health Evaluation Program — and New York proposed a bill that would better regulate employee exposure to the chemical.
According to H.R. 2693, “There is compelling evidence that diacetyl presents a grave danger and significant risk of life-threatening illness to exposed employees.” It further notes that back in 2000, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began linking cases of BOS in workers at microwave popcorn plants to the additive; many more cases have been identified since then. The bill also mentions that in August of 2004, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association wrote a report that warned of potentially serious respiratory illness in workers exposed to flavorings that included diacetyl.
Consequently, FEMA says it “supports legislation that could lead to appropriate science-based regulation to enhance the safety of workers in the flavor industry.” In addition, it points out that H.R. 2693 resembles the recommendations FEMA made three years ago in its report “Respiratory Health and Safety in the Flavor Manufacturing Workplace.”
Until this whole situation is resolved, better safe than sorry. I’m not suggesting we take drastic measures and stop eating microwave popcorn. (What am I, crazy? Britney Spears already cornered that market.) Instead, perhaps we all should heed the advice of former President Bill Clinton … just don’t inhale.