Sep 6, 2007

Popcorn alert: the Diacetyl risk factor

Dr Cecile Rose is a pulmonary specialist who also offers her services as a consultant to the food industry. She has been investigating a condition known as ‘popcorn workers’ lung’ for a number of years.

Some popcorn plants have been shown to contain high levels of diacetyl. Diacetyl, a byproduct of the fermentation process, has a buttery, butterscotch-like flavor that is ideal for improving the taste of popcorn. Problem is, there are health risks associated with exposure to diacetyl.

There have been cases of workers in popcorn factories who have been diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans - a serious lung disease. Researchers have good reason suspect that it is exposure to diacetyl that is the problem, because many of the workers who suffered lung problems were young non-smokers, with few other risk factors. The courts appear to agree with these findings. In July, 2005, a popcorn worker in Missouri was awarded $2.7 million as a result of developing bronchiolitis obliterans through exposure to diacetyl in the workplace.

Dr Rose came across a case that involved an American man who was a self-confessed popcorn addict. He would eat microwaved popcorn at home as often as twice a day and had the habit of inhaling the fumes from the popcorn as he removed it from the microwave. Over time the man developed severe breathing problems.

Tests showed that the level of diacetyl in the man’s Colorado home was similar to the levels Dr Rose had found in popcorn plants. When he was put on a microwave popcorn-free diet, the man dropped 50 pounds and his lung function improved.

Given the numbers of workers in popcorn plants who have sustained serious lung damage, regulators need to do more to crackdown on unacceptable diacetyl exposure. The work of Dr Rose indicates the risks associated with diacetyl exposure also extend into people’s kitchens.