Workers who have been exposed to the chemical Diacetyl, which is used to increase butter flavor and taste in products and is largely found in microwave popcorn, may be at risk for the disease known as Popcorn Lung.
Popcorn Lung, or Popcorn Workers’ Lung, is a disease where the bronchioles (small airway branches) are plugged with granulation tissue, causing lung usage to be as low as 16% to 21%, as opposed to the normal 80%.
Symptoms include severe shortness of breath, a dry cough and wheezing. Since these symptoms are similar to other respiratory diseases such as asthma or emphysema, a misdiagnosis can occur, and a second opinion is strongly encouraged.
The severity of symptoms varies from a mild cough to a severe cough. Also, the onset of symptoms can range from gradual to sudden onset. That is why it is important to see a doctor if you have been exposed to Diacetyl even if you feel fine.
By reducing exposure to Diacetyl, you may believe you are in the clear. However, Popcorn Lung is irreversible once it has developed and reduced exposure will not improve your condition. Patients may even require a lung transplant in severe cases.
Exposure to Diacetyl has been found to be one of the main causes of Popcorn Lung. However, exposure to polyamide-amine dyes and thionyl chloride fumes may also cause the disease. Also, it is not just popcorn manufacturers that use Diacetyl. It is also used in ice cream, candy, cakes and other products.
If you have been exposed to Diacetyl or any of the other possible inhalants that cause the disease, you should see a doctor to be tested for Popcorn Lung. Again, do this even if you feel fine and regardless of your role or the product produced in the plant.
If you continue to be exposed to Diacetyl or any of the other possible inhalants that cause the disease in the workplace, you should obtain and read the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Booklet “NIOSH ALERT: Preventing Lung Disease in Workers Who Use or Make Flavorings” as well as see a doctor to be tested for Popcorn Lung.