Popcorn Lung Illness

A lot of food products contain a mixture of different synthetic ingredients. Workers in the manufacturing plants and factories may be exposed to such dangerous ingredients because of the specks of dust, sprays or vapors during the manufacturing process.

One of the food products where workers are at-risk is microwave popcorn. Studies have been made on the packaging plants of the microwave popcorn and the chemical vapors that may be released during the manufacturing process. It has been found that there is a possibility that diacetyl, a chemical used in butter flavoring, could be causing bronchiolitis obliterans in workers. Bronchiolitis obliterans, also known as popcorn lung, is a rare lung disease where the airway is obstructed. The first known case was found in a consumer who ate a lot of microwave popcorn.


Diacetyl (2,3-butanedione) is a synthetic substance added to food products to give it a butter-like flavor.

Studies have been conducted on animals who have been exposed to the butter flavor, and such animals have exhibited signs of problems in their airways as a result of inhalation of the vapors.

Bronchiolitis Obliterans

Bronchiolitis obliterans, also known as popcorn lung, is a rare lung disease where the airway is obstructed. The airways of a person may become inflamed or have scarring, resulting in shortness of breath which could be severe and disable the victim.

In addition to the inhalation of harmful chemicals, bronchiolitis obliterans may also be caused by certain viral or bacterial infections, reaction to certain drugs, or organ transplant. In addition to flavoring, other possible chemical causes of bronchiolitis obliterans are chlorine, phosgene, ammonia, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and other irritant gases.

Symptoms Associated with Flavoring Chemical Exposure

Prior to recent findings, the symptoms of bronchiolitis obliterans seemed to be that of asthma, chronic bronchitis, pneumonia, emphysema or smoking: a cough without phlegm, and shortness of breath.

Usually, the symptoms will not go away even if the worker has stopped being exposed to the chemicals. Symptoms may vary in severity, and may progress gradually; however, there are cases of severe symptoms appearing all of a sudden.

Other symptoms are weight loss, night sweats, fever, and even irritation of the nose, eyes, throat, and skin.

Sometimes the cough may be reduced years after, but the shortness of breath when exerting oneself may continue. In some severe cases, a lung transplant may be required.

Hazardous Exposure Elimination and Prevention

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) recommends certain steps for employers to avoid or minimize the workers’ exposure to chemicals used in flavoring their products. The following is a summary of the recommendations. You may also see the full NIOSH recommendations here.

  • Substitution – If it is possible, the employers may substitute a less harmful ingredient. This change can only be done if there is a possible substitute. Usually, it is better to use less volatile chemicals or powder.
  • Engineering Controls – The employers can modify how chemicals are handled during the production process, minimizing the workers’ exposure to the chemicals. It is also important to provide adequate ventilation and temperature control on the production floor.
  • Administrative Controls – Employers can implement work practices related to the proper handling of the chemicals and flavorings to minimize the release of these into the air. In addition to that, there may also be a need to keep the containers of such chemicals tightly closed when not being used; and to maintain the cleanliness of the areas where these chemicals are used and exposed.
  • Employer and Worker Education – Workers need to know about chemicals and flavorings that may be harmful and the symptoms that may show because of exposure to such chemicals. Such information should be provided by the employers within the workplace. The employers should also provide Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and training to the workers. Proper labeling and handling should also be practiced.
  • Personal Protective Equipment – If exposure cannot be avoided, then workers must wear protection for their respiration, eyes and skin. They may need to wear a breathing mask, goggles and gloves.
  • Exposure Monitoring – Experts in air sampling may be employed to test and measure the air concentrations of the chemicals and to find out if the preventive measures are effective in reducing the exposure.
  • Worker Health Monitoring – Regular respiratory check-ups may be conducted on the employees.

Government Standards and Regulations

Among the 1,037 flavoring ingredients that have been considered as potentially harmful by the flavorings industry, only 46 have recommended permissible exposure limits (PELs) as established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and/or recommended exposure limits (RELs) by NIOSH because of their irritant and volatility properties.

In addition to workers exposed to butter flavorings, there have been reports of risk to workers exposed to other flavoring ingredients. More study on this needs to be conducted.

Get Legal help for Flavoring Chemical Exposure

If you or a loved one has been exposed to chemical flavorings and are experiencing symptoms or developed medical conditions in relation to the exposure, consult with a healthcare provider immediately. You may also want to work with an experienced personal injury attorney who could give you more information and guidance in order to protect your legal rights and to possibly claim for legal remedies for your injuries.

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