Flavoring manufacturing workers and microwave popcorn workers are at risk for developing obliterative bronchiolitis, a serious lung disease, after being exposed to diacetyl, a synthetic flavoring agent used to mimic the taste of butter.
Diacetyl and 2,3 pentanedione (a diacetyl substitute) are produced by chemical manufacturers and is a volatile organic compound that can be found in microwave popcorn, flavored coffee, cake mixes, prepackaged frosting, and many other types of foods.
Diacetyl is also a naturally occurring chemical produced when coffee beans are roasted. The ground coffee beans creates a larger surface area for these chemicals, which is why coffee roasting facilities put their newly roasted coffee in bags with one-way valves to allow for “off-gassing.” However, many facilities place newly roasted coffee in containers to allow off-gassing, which increases the exposure risk of workers to the chemicals.
Obliterative bronchiolitis, better known as “popcorn lung” for the five microwave popcorn plant workers that developed the lung disease about 15 years ago, is a disease where the smallest airways of the lungs become scarred and restricted. The symptoms include shortness of breath and a cough, and are very similar to the symptoms of COPD. The only treatment is a lung transplant.
NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) performs frequent health hazard evaluations. Several coffee processing facilities had air samples taken to measure for potential concentrations of the chemicals.
According to the CDC, “Currently, no specific federal regulations govern workers exposed to diacetyl or its substitutes.” However, NIOSH has produced a standard with recommended exposure limits (RELs) that will help reduce workers’ exposure to both diacetyl and 2,3 pentanedione.