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Since 2001 academic studies have shown causal links between bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare and life-threatening form of restrictive lung disease and the chemical used in artificial butter flavoring called Diacetyl. Flavoring manufacturers have already paid out more than $100,000,000.00 in personal injury lawsuits by people sickened by what is now known as “popcorn workers’ lung” over the past five years. One death from the disease has already been confirmed.

Unfortunately, despite the mounting evidence and increasing number of personal injury and wrongful death claims there are no federal laws to regulate the chemical’s use. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency designated to protect workers from such potentially dangerous chemicals has yet to decide what standards, if any should be implemented to protect workers on their job site.

Of growing concern however is how this chemical affects consumers. So far, there are very few if any studies on the effects of eating Diacetyl in the butter-flavored popcorn or breathing it in in a freshly popped bag of microwaveable popcorn. The Environmental Protection Agency has done a study but amazingly has declined to release that study until the chemical flavoring industry has an opportunity to review it.

The Food and Drug Administration, another agency charged with food safety, has said that Diacetyl is on its list of substances “generally recognized as safe”. It has not however ever studied it.

Meanwhile California has moved ahead.

So far, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, has found eight flavoring workers with fixed obstructive lung disease, most of those with bronchiolitis obliterans. Twenty-two more have below-normal lung capacity, which may be the beginning of the disease.

“They’re finding it there because they’re looking there,” said David Michaels of the department of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University. Michaels, assistant secretary of energy in the Clinton administration, accuses OSHA of “regulatory paralysis.”

“It’s not some carcinogen where you get cancer 30 years from now or something. The people are dying right in front of you,” Michaels said. “You can’t wait until you have all the evidence. You have to regulate it.”

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