Last week, the New York Times released some startling news about diacetyl. The butter-flavor chemical, it can be found in most microwave popcorns including Orville Redenbacher and Act II. For years, health officials have warned popcorn-factory workers to be wary of the chemical as overexposure can lead to eye, nose, throat and skin irritation as well as lung damage. The CDC even issued a fact sheet (after two California workers were diagnosed with a severe diacetyl-related lung disease), detailing the chemical’s risks and what each individual should do to remain healthy. Factories followed suit by improving ventilation and attempting to reduce their employees’ diacetyl intake. Until now, that seemed like all the concern the chemical deemed.
But in February, a Colorado man was diagnosed with the same lung disease. The difference? He had never worked in a popcorn factory. He had simply consumed two bags of microwave popcorn a day for ten years. The vapors he took in each time he opened a package and inhaled the scent of warm buttery-ness were enough to permanently damage his lungs. And if there was any doubt that diacetyl was the cause of his illness, the man’s slight improvement since giving up popcorn erases it. But, manufacturers still maintain that diacetyl is safe. It only causes harm when exposure is at a maximum and should, thus, not affect consumers. However since the same manufacturers are following up each safety proclamation with “but, we’ll be removing it from our product as soon as possible,” I’m inclined not to believe them.
So, what does this mean? First, it means that we need to be more aware of the chemicals going into our products. Ignorant eating can lead to health problems we didn’t even know were possible. It also means that movie night has taken another blow. Now, not only can we not enjoy our soda (health officials having made it virtually impossible to ignore the drink’s negative effects) but we can’t relish our popcorn either. With each crunch, we’ll be thinking of the fumes that invaded our lungs upon opening the bag. We’ll become unnecessarily concerned when we choke on a kernel and begin coughing. And, we’ll spend our entire evening consumed by paranoia. Or, we’ll behave rationally and think twice about how much popcorn we’re eating and how smart it is to dip our noses into the bag for a whiff. Either way our popcorn habits have lost a little bit of luster. So, thanks a lot Orville. You’ve let me, and my lungs, down.