Popcorn producers already are moving to find substitutes for a popcorn flavoring that is suspected of causing a serious lung disease in workers who package popcorn. Nonetheless, a standard on the use of the chemical by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration might help prevent needless cases of the disease.
The House voted last week to instruct OSHA to provide a standard that would regulate food workers' exposure to diacetyl, an artificial butter flavoring commonly used in microwave popcorn. Some workers who mixed the flavorings have contracted a rare lung disease in which small airways in the lungs become swollen and scarred, impairing lung function.
Consumers of microwave popcorn allegedly are at little risk. But one man who claimed that he ate two to three bags a day for 10 years and would often inhale the fragrance did contract the disease.
Critics of the House bill claim it is premature and that OSHA needs more time to complete a scientific study of diacetyl exposure. But if substitute flavorings are readily available and if the circumstantial evidence against diacetyl is so strong, why put workers at risk?
Diacetyl is considered safe for use by consumers (although inhaling the vapors probably is inadvisable), and no one is proposing a ban on its use at this time. But if OSHA can formulate a standard by which workers would be protected when working with the flavoring, it might help prevent lung disease and producers might avoid lawsuits down the road.
Standard should be set to protect popcorn workers from danger of butter flavoring.