ConAgra, the world's largest supplier of the 3 billion bags of microwave popcorn sold each year, said Tuesday that it will eliminate the use of a controversial chemical butter flavoring linked to severe lung disease in workers from its Act II and Orville Redenbacher products.

The announcement comes a week after Pop Weaver, the nation's second-largest popcorn producer, said it already had pulled the synthetic flavoring -- diacetyl -- from its microwave product delivered to stores last month.

Meanwhile, a lung specialist from Denver's National Jewish Medical and Research Center has notified federal agencies that she may have identified the first known case of a man who ate popcorn at home and had the same disease as the workers.

Lung specialist Dr. Cecile Rose wrote to the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration in July, advising them of her patient and the possibility that people who pop microwave corn at home can be at risk.

The rare lung disease that Rose diagnosed in her patient -- bronchiolitis obliterans -- can cause death in severe cases. Lung transplants are the only hope that patients have. The disease quickly leads to breathing difficulties and is often misidentified by physicians unfamiliar with the disease.

It has been found coast-to-coast in workers in plants that make and use flavorings, in candy factories and in a dozen different food production operations that use the synthetic chemical butter flavoring.

A naturally occurring substance found in many dairy products, diacetyl was first produced synthetically in Europe and is added to thousands of products throughout the world to increase or enrich butter flavoring.

Rose told the federal health agencies that her patient had a similar clinical finding to the affected factory workers but his only exposure to diacetyl was as "a heavy, daily consumer of butter flavored microwave popcorn."

Rose said that her team had measured the diacetyl released in the patient's home when the popcorn was microwaved and found levels equal to what the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found when it began investigating worker exposure in Midwest popcorn plants in 2001.

The reaction from the health agencies she contacted has been minimal.

"I am surprised that none of the regulatory agencies has called me to learn more about the case," said the pulmonologist, but Rose added that she has received "numerous calls from industry representatives who were very interested in hearing more details than were presented in my letter."

Rose admits that it's difficult to make a positive link based on a single report but added, "We have no other plausible explanation."

Her letter prompted this response from Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., chairwoman of a work force protection subcommittee:

"The reported case of a consumer diagnosed with popcorn lung underscores the need for our public health agencies to take this hazard more seriously, not only for workers, but for consumers as well. While OSHA is dragging its feet over the numerous reports of workers who have died or suffered serious lung disease from exposure to diacetyl, this new case raises concerns that consumers may be at risk as well."

However, Rose's case may be the second possible "home exposure" reported to a government agency.

Last year, Dr. Allan Parmet, a national recognized occupational medicine specialist who was the first to diagnose the illnesses in popcorn workers, referred a case to the Illinois state health department.

The 6-year-old child was the son of a popcorn plant employee who had full-blown bronchiolitis obliterans.

The man told Parmet that his son was showing symptoms identical to his. When his plant closed, the company told the employees they could help themselves to the products -- and Parmet's patient took home a large quantity of butter-flavored oil, which he told the doctor he used almost continuously for frying.

"The fumes filled his trailer," Parmet said. "I was concerned about what the child had inhaled so I sent a report to Illinois health officials, and they just didn't care."

Dr. David Egilman, an occupation medicine specialist, has examined and testified for many of the workers injured by diacetyl.

"People need to realize that these illness and deaths were completely preventable," Egilman said. "They occurred because the companies who make these products hid the information on toxicity and control the regulatory process. ... An emasculated government public health community that is subservient to corporate profits cannot protect us -- even from popcorn."

Weaver, the first microwave popcorn company to remove diacetyl, said it had taken its action because of concerns for consumers who were "growing more anxious" over the presence of the chemical.

On Tuesday, ConAgra corporate spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said no date for the production of popcorn without the flavoring had been determined, but it would be in the "near future." The action will be taken to protect ConAgra workers, she said.

"Our scientists are working to find an appropriate substitute."
Comment: "Appropriate substitute"... until illness and death prove otherwise. There are no checks-and-balances. A hidden, symbiotic relationship exists between corporate entities and the agencies which regulate them. Until all parties are held to account for their actions, nothing will change.

More people will get sick, either immediately or long-term due to cumulative effects of the synthetic chemicals absorbed over the years, more will die or become debilitated.

Workers from ConAgra were among more than 200 employees from six Midwest microwave popcorn plants whose lungs were damaged or destroyed by exposure to the butter flavoring used in the bags.

Although diacetyl may have serious public health consequences beyond the workplace, only the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has done extensive research on diacetyl in the workplace. Other agencies bounce responsibility for diacetyl in consumer products elsewhere.

The only agency studying how much diacetyl is generated in home microwaving is the EPA, but it has been sitting on the results of its research for more than two years. It is looking at the vapors as an air pollutant.

The EPA's explanation for not sharing its finding with the public health community or other federal investigators was that it did not want to endanger its scientist's chance of having her research published in a scientific journal.

When asked Tuesday what its reaction was to Rose's letter, the agency released this statement: "EPA scientists do cutting-edge research to protect public health. EPA's popcorn study was of emissions, not health effect research."


Diacetyl is a naturally occurring substance found in many dairy products and some wine. It was first produced synthetically in Europe and is added to thousands of foods throughout the world to increase or enrich butter flavoring. It is found in microwave popcorn, potato chips, baked goods and candies, frozen food, artificial butter, cooking oils, beer, dog food and other items.


Worker hazards: In manufacturing plants, it's been linked to bronchiolitis obliterans -- irreversible obstructive lung diseases -- for which lung transplants are often the only way to survive. Lawsuits against diacetyl manufacturers by hundreds of workers in popcorn, flavoring and other food plants claiming injury from breathing diacetyl have led to jury awards and settlements of more than $20 million.

Consumer hazards: The Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have declined to study the effect on consumers. The Environmental Protection Agency has looked at the vapors from heated diacetyl as an air pollutant but has not released the results to the public or to public health professionals.