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House Says Yes to Popcorn Lung Bill

Legislation Would Require New Worker Protections
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 26, 2007 -- The U.S. House of Representatives called for stricter new standards Wednesday to protect workers exposed to flavoring chemicals in popcorn plants.

Lawmakers passed a bill forcing federal regulators to enact fast-track regulations that would increase health monitoring and protections for employees who work with diacetyl. The chemical, which helps give microwave popcorn a butter taste, has been linked to a rare but potentially deadly lung ailment in workers.

The bill calls on the Labor Department to tighten diacetyl exposure standards within three months, much faster than federal regulations usually go into effect.

"We need an emergency standard right now," Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) tells WebMD. "Hundreds of workers have been affected by this."

Diacetyl has been linked to bronchiolitis obliterans, a disease characterized by destruction of the lung's small air passages.

Leading microwave popcorn manufacturers have said they plan to stop using diacetyl, but the ingredient is present in other processed foods as well.

The bill, which passed 260-154, also requires companies to develop protection plans, including the use of respirators, to guard workers.

The Environmental Protection Agency is set to release a study that could begin to help determine whether diacetyl fumes pose risk during home cooking. The study is looking at levels of the chemical emitted by popcorn during the cooking process.

The Senate has not yet acted on the bill.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) voted against the bill Wednesday. "Congress is in no position to diagnose the problem here," he says.

"If there's something wrong with popcorn, how did Orville Redenbacher live so long?" he says.

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