Artificial butter flavoring has many health side effects
Image: FreeDigitalPhotos

Since the mid 2000s there has been a lot of concern about the microwave popcorn industry and occupational health and safety regulations. A new term was coined to describe what workers were experiencing, popcorn lung.

This disease referred to workers at popcorn factories who suffered from a debilitating lung condition as a result of exposure to diacetyl, a synthetic butter-flavored chemical used in their products.

In 2010, a worker won a lawsuit against industry giant BASF Corp.  He was awarded over 30 million dollars to compensate for the bronchiolitis obliterans he developed from exposure to diacetyl.

In 2011, another worker won his lawsuit against Polarome International Inc. for the same reasons. He was also given compensation.

How does this chemical work?

Diacetyl is a naturally occurring chemical found in many different consumer products, such as beer and wine. It becomes hazardous, however, when it is produced synthetically, which is the case with products manufactured to have a buttery smell or taste.

New developments

Over the past few weeks, talk of diacetyl and the popcorn industry has resurfaced.  But the angle has changed. Two studies have shown very different, but equally harmful, side effects to working with the butter substitute.

Researchers now fear diacetyl
may cause Alzheimer’s disease
Image: FreeDigitalPhotos

Apart from the rare lung disease known to occur with repeated exposure to this chemical, research now shows a correlation between diacetyl and Alzheimer’s disease. Though there is no irrefutable proof as of yet, researchers are pointing to how diacetyl may impact beta-amyloid proteins in the brain.

The chemical appears to be causing the proteins to clump together, which is one of the indicators for Alzheimer’s disease. Diacetyl also crosses the blood-brain barrier, which leaves the brain vulnerable to attack, thereby resulting in both neurological toxicity and brain deterioration.

Over the past few years, the federal government has sought to limit workers’ exposure to diacetyl, but has not banned the chemical from use. Many factories still use diacetyl, but some have opted for another synthetic butter substitute called 2,3-pentanedione (PD).

Recent investigations into this chemical, performed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), show that PD demonstrates similar health hazards to its predecessor, diacetyl.  The same kind of damage was found in the lungs, indicating a tendency toward developing the non-reversible and life-threatening bronchiolitis obliterans.There is no information yet on how PD impacts the brain.

Does knowledge about diacetyl and PD’s health hazards affect whether you will continue to buy microwave popcorn? Let us know what you think.

Clean air for workers

Though there has been a lot of talk about protecting workers from chemical exposure, many companies have yet to install proper HVAC systems and air cleaners.

Electrocorp provides companies with a large array of air cleaners that can serve many different industries. From air cleaners that focus only on particles, to units that have both a HEPA and activated carbon filtration system, there are ways to protect your workers from inhaling fumes and chemicals that can cause irreversible harm.

To find out more about our units, contact one of our IAQ experts.