Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Price of a Bag of Popcorn

Microwave popcorn is something quite tasty and a nice snack for home movies. Diacetyl, the flavoring that gives the popcorn its buttery taste is quite safe to eat. Even inhaling the vapors for a short period of time is not hazardous. However, like many chemicals, long term exposure at industrial levels (such as in a popcorn manufacturing plant) can have serious effects on the lungs. The characteristic lung damage has been termed Flavoring Worker's Lung. The Pump Handle, a public health blog, has more on the health hazards of prolonged exposure and the gradual efforts to protect workers from the substance. More on Wikipedia.

Naturally, there have been calls to ban diacetyl, and the matter is under debate. Bans or enforceable standards like an OSHA Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) actually are the best approach from a business perspective, as they level the playing field. This reminds me of a story about how hockey players did not wear helmets intially, despite receiving safety warnings. It wasn't that they didn't believe the warnings, but that they thought the helmets would reduce their fields of vision, thus putting them at a disadvantage. (It may also have had something to do with not wanting to look like a coward) They asked the League to require it for them so that they would all be equally effected. This logic is the ethical basis for nearly all regulatory law - it removes a decision from competitive pressure. Think about taxes: we all know the government needs money to perform its tasks, but it would be hard to get people to pay the money voluntarily. The Angry Toxicologist (who is actually one of the most dispassionate and rational public health bloggers) has more on this, as well as on the devastating effects of diacetyl on the lungs.

Now for a question to any of my readers: are you aware of an alternative to diacetyl? I've read many times that safe alternatives are available, but no actual chemicals are listed.

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