Editor's Note: Returning to the spotlight?
If you were a safety pro 10 to 15 years ago, you’ll likely remember the chemical diacetyl being in the spotlight. If it doesn’t ring a bell, the term “popcorn lung” might.
Originally called “popcorn workers lung,” the issue came to light when reports surfaced about employees in microwave popcorn manufacturing plants developing severe lung problems. Some were even placed on waiting lists for lung transplants. The illness – diagnosed as the irreversible disease bronchiolitis obliterans – was traced back to exposure to diacetyl, which is added to some processed foods to give them a buttery flavor.
Legislators and safety advocates – including current OSHA administrator David Michaels, then an epidemiologist at the George Washington University School of Public Health – called for a standard. However, hope pretty much faded in 2012, when the rulemaking was moved to “long-term status” on OSHA’s regulatory agenda.
The disease’s nickname underwent a change after it was diagnosed in a consumer who said he ate two to three bags of microwave popcorn a day. Although some manufacturers took steps to remove diacetyl from products (I remember seeing “no added diacetyl” stamped on a bag of microwave popcorn and wondering how many people would know what that meant), the chemical generally has been considered safe for the public.
But a recent study could bring diacetyl more firmly into the public eye – and raise some questions.
Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health tested several types of flavored e-cigarettes and found that they contained both diacetyl and diacetyl substitutes (which two studies published in 2012 concluded also may be harmful to workers). When Safety+Health’s coverage of the Harvard study – including an excellent blog post from Associate Editor Sarah Trotto – was posted to our website and put out on social media, we were surprised at the amount of interest it received from people outside of the safety community. We hope you’ll take a look.