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microwave popcorn being poured into a bowl

Diacetyl is a chemical used in small amounts in wine and beer to impart a pleasant mouth-feel, but is also employed as a flavoring most commonly to create a buttery flavor in microwave popcorn. Pretty innocuous, no?

According to an article published in today’s NYTimes, “Flavoring-Factory Illnesses Raise Inquiries” diacetyl is commonly used in a concentrated form and is processed in flavoring plants where workers are “handling and mixing diacetyl with other ingredients in cauldron-like blenders”.

For the workers affected by exposure to this form of the chemical, many have developed bronchiolitis obliterans. This disease is life-threatening, has no treatment or cure and in most cases the affected parties were young and healthy before they began working in the plant.

The first case of bronchiolitis obliterans in California was reported in August 2004. Not surprisingly, industry officials deny they have been slow to act but have publically admitted that they have known about health complications arising from exposure to the chemical combined with poorly ventilated workspaces since 2001. A bill, introduced by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, which would ban diacetyl in all California workplaces by 2010 has already passed two committees in the State Assembly.

Other studies conducted in midwestern plants by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health confirm a connection between workplace exposure to diacetyl and possibly other chemicals used in complex flavoring mixtures. Part of the problem is the fact that, “the safety of these chemicals is usually established for humans consuming small amounts in food [Pollitt 2000], not for food industry workers inhaling them”.

What’s my point? It is twofold. The production and manufacture of products we consider to be unremarkable, everyday use items have a huge impact on the health and safety of millions of people, not to mention the environment. On the consumer side of things this impact is difficult to see and who knows what, if any eventual impact there will be to the consumer, which leads me to my second point – research into the environmental factors which cause chronic illnesses such as cancer are only beginning.

A self-serving concern on my part? To some degree, sure. But at the same time our culture of convenience can only have so long of a lifespan before it burns itself out, taking us with it.

I can eat my popcorn plain, thanks.

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