Butter Flavoring Can Cause Lung Disease: Diacetyl, a Chemical Additive to Watch Out For
Between 1992 and 2000, eight former workers of a popcorn
plant in Jasper, Missouri developed a rare lung disease called
bronchiolitis obliterans. Known commonly as the "popcorn
packer's lung," this disease has been linked to workers
inhaling butter flavoring vapors used at the food plants where
they work. The disease is so severe that some of the workers
are now on lung transplant waiting lists.
The flavoring that gives microwave popcorn its buttery
taste may be causing a rare lung disease.
Back in November 2000, the National Institute for Occupational
Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted a study involving 117
workers at the Jasper popcorn plant and found:
Plant workers had 3.3 times the rate of airway obstruction
than a national sample.
Young employees who had never smoked were five times
more likely to suffer from chronic cough and shortness
of breath than a national sample.
72 percent of workers reported work-related eye, nose
or throat irritation.
The popcorn-production workers reported chronic coughs,
attacks of wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of
breath more frequently than other workers.
In January 2005, NIOSH recommended that employers take measures
to limit their "occupational respiratory exposures to
food flavorings and flavoring ingredients in workplaces where
flavorings are made or used."
They also reported in the journal Chest that workers exposed
to flavoring agents were almost four times as likely to develop
inflammation in their airways, which indicates that harmful
agents have been inhaled. And, links between butter flavoring
exposure and lung disease in workers in Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska
and Ohio have been reported.
In a lawsuit against the world's second largest flavor manufacturer,
International Flavoring & Fragrances (IFF), 19 popcorn
factory workers claimed the company knew about the risks of
the butter flavoring. IFF was ordered to pay almost $53 million
in settlements to four workers, which it appealed, and in
early 2004 paid $20 million in damages to another worker.
The Culprit: Diacetyl
Although it has not been determined exactly what in the flavoring
is causing harm, one chemical commonly used and thought to
play a part in the lung disease cases is diacetyl.
The disease, bronchiolitis obliterans, is an obliteration
of the lung's airways, which does not respond to normal asthma
medications. It is thought that, once the flavoring chemicals
are breathed in, they damage the airway lining and tissue,
leading to scarring that hardens and crimps airflow.
Diacetyl imparts a yellow color to dairy products.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety
and Health Administration (OSHA), "A cause-effect relationship
between diacetyl and bronchiolitis obliterans has not been
established, as food-processing workers with this lung disease
were also exposed to other volatile food-flavoring agents."
However, they have listed the following potential symptoms
of exposure to the chemical as:
- Eye, mucous membrane, respiratory system, skin irritation
- Phlegm production
- Dyspnea (shortness of breath)
- Unusual fatigue
- Episodes of mild fever or generalized aches
- Severe skin rashes
Potential health effects include irritation to the eyes,
nose, throat and skin, and, as noted by OSHA, "Suspected
cumulative lung damage-- bronchiolitis obliterans."
Diacetyl is naturally occurring in butter, beer, coffee,
vinegar, and other food products, produced by yeast during
fermentation. It is used as an artificial flavoring to add
to the flavor of:
- Cream or creaminess
If you'd like to watch out for diacetyl in your own shopping,
it's used in (aside from butter, cream and butterscotch):
- Microwave popcorn and other snack foods
- Some fast foods
- Baked goods
- Processed cheese
- Salad dressings
- Non- and low-fat dairy products
- Sour cream
- Cottage cheese
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