Microwave popcorn a new threat

Published May 8, 2007

SOUTH GATE, Calif. - Once in constant motion, Irma Ortiz is now too winded to sweep her patio or walk her son to school without resting.

Ortiz, 44, is among a group of California food-flavoring workers diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare and life-threatening lung disease known as popcorn workers lung because it has turned up in workers at microwave-popcorn factories. The disease destroys the lungs, and a transplant is the only cure.

Since 2001, studies have linked the disease with diacetyl, a chemical used in artificial butter flavoring. Flavoring manufacturers have paid out more than $100-million as a result of lawsuits by people sick with popcorn workers lung over the past five years. One death from the disease has been confirmed.

But no federal laws regulate the chemical's use. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is still deciding what standards to set for workers who handle it, and the agency is to begin inspecting microwave-popcorn factories this month.

Even less is known about the health effects of eating diacetyl in butter-flavored popcorn, or breathing the fumes after the bag is microwaved. The Environmental Protection Agency has studied the fumes but is waiting for the industry to review the study before releasing it.