Over the past week, several newspapers and wire services have reported on the story we broke here at The Pump Handle about the first reported case of bronchiolitis obliterans in a microwave popcorn consumer – quickly followed by microwave popcorn manufacturers’ announcements about the removal of diacetyl from their products, and by additional calls from health advocates and members of Congress for federal agencies to address the problem. It’s interesting to look at the different angles from which the various articles approach the topic, and the details they include.
The Associated Press and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel were the first to publish, posting stories on September 4th. Both Marcus Kabel’s “Microwaved popcorn may be linked to illness” (AP) and Raquel Rutledge’s “Snack could be toxic” (MJS) noted in the first sentence that this disease had only been reported in workers until now, then went on to explain how Dr. Cecile Rose identified exposure to microwave popcorn fumes as the only plausible explanation for her patient’s illness. Rutledge noted that the EPA had studied microwave popcorn emissions more than a year ago, and quoted an agency spokesperson saying that “it’s taken longer than we thought” to get those results published. (See our posts on the EPA angle here and here.)
On September 5th, Andrew Schneider’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer article “Popcorn supplier to drop toxic chemical” reported that ConAgra, the world’s largest microwave popcorn supplier, had announced its plans to eliminate diacetyl from its popcorn products. (Schneider has been following the diacetyl issue for a long time, and wrote last month about the EPA study and Pop Weaver’s announcement that it had dropped diacetyl from its popcorn.) The AP’s Josh Funk also emphasized ConAgra’s decision, and the reason for it: “ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said the company decided in the past few months to remove the butter flavoring diacetyl from its popcorn because of the risk the chemical presents to workers who handle large quantities.”
In the New York Times, also on September 5th, Gardiner Harris provided additional details on the bronchiolitis obliterans patient, a 53-year-old Colorado man:
A furniture salesman, the man was becoming increasingly short of breath. He had never smoked and was overweight. His illness had been diagnosed as hypersensitivity pneumonitis, an inflammation of the lungs usually caused by chronic exposure to bacteria, mold or dust. Farmers and bird enthusiasts are frequent sufferers.
But nothing in the Colorado man’s history suggested that he was breathing in excessive amounts of mold or bird droppings, Dr. Rose said. She has consulted to flavorings manufacturers for years about “popcorn workers’ lung,” and said that something about the man’s tests appeared similar to those of the workers.
“I said to him, ‘This is a very weird question, but bear with me. But are you around a lot of popcorn?’ ” Dr. Rose asked. “His jaw dropped and he said, ‘How could you possibly know that about me? I am Mr. Popcorn. I love popcorn.’ ”
The man told Dr. Rose that he had eaten microwave popcorn at least twice a day for more than 10 years.
“When he broke open the bags, after the steam came out, he would often inhale the fragrance because he liked it so much,” Dr. Rose said. “That’s heated diacetyl, which we know from the workers’ studies is the highest risk.”
Harris reported that six months after abandoning the snack six months ago, the man had lost 50 pounds and experienced a slight improvement in lung function. (This NYT article also has the distinction among the in-depth articles of failing to mention how the story came to its attention – a development that itself spawned two blog posts.)
Katy Human of the Denver Post also emphasized the man’s popcorn habit in her article. She noted that Dr. Rose sent letters to the FDA, EPA, CDC, and OSHA, and highlighted the FDA’s response:
The FDA, which is evaluating information linking diacetyl to lung disease, is considering the safety and regulatory issues raised, agency spokesman Mike Herndon said.
“We are considering this case report as part of our evaluation,” he said.
On September 6th, the Baltimore Sun’s Chris Emery and the Columbus Dispatch’s Kevin Mayhood also reported on ConAgra’s announcement. Emery also asked an EPA spokesperson about the publication of the agency’s study, and was told it would probably be published this month in a “major scientific journal.”
The AP’s Charles Babington reported on September 7th that union leaders and public health experts wrote to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao to renew the call for OSHA action to protect workers from diacetyl (see our post here), and that Senators Edward Kennedy and Patty Murray sent letters to the FDA, CDC, and Department of Labor urging action.
On September 9th, Sabrina Eaton’s Cleveland Plain Dealer article emphasized local connections to the case – not only that self-proclaimed “Popcorn Capital of the World” Marion, Ohio had wrapped up its annual festival, but that hundreds of workers from Ohio popcorn plants have filed lawsuits against the butter-flavor manufacturer Givaudan Flavors Corp. after falling ill with lung disease.
The local angle also comes up in Connecticut, home of Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who has joined the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy in calling for the FDA to re-evaluate diacetyl’s “generally regarded as safe” status. (See our post here for more.) An interesting contrast is visible between two Connecticut newspapers. A Hartford Courant editorial deems the consumer case “serious enough for a Food and Drug Administration investigation and search for a risk-free flavoring” but states erroneously that “no one worried about the effects on the consumer” until now. A New Haven Register editorial, on the other hand, praises DeLauro for having taken the issue up with the FDA several months ago and concludes:
As a food safety champion and head of the subcommittee that oversees the FDA’s budget, DeLauro deserves much of the credit for this voluntary action by business. Her harder task is to persuade government agencies charged with worker and consumer safety to respond with new regulations recognizing diacetyl’s danger.
Finally, Jeff Nesmith of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Cox News Services focuses on the issue of the EPA’s communication with popcorn manufacturers:
In April 2006, EPA scientists in Research Triangle Park, N.C., completed an analysis of air released from bags of microwaved popcorn, internal agency documents indicate.
Copies of the results were provided to popcorn producers three months later, but for the following 13 months, EPA has refused to make the report available to the general public. During that time, Americans have consumed more than 750 million pounds of home-popped popcorn, according to statistics posted online by an industry group.
In response to a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act, EPA recently released to Cox Newspapers several hundred pages of documents related to the diacetyl study. However, it withheld the study report, as well as comments the agency received from popcorn companies after they were allowed to see the document.
The industry comments were withheld under a provision that exempts confidential business information from mandatory disclosure.
The study itself was withheld under a FOIA provision that allows agencies to withhold documents that are part of their pre-decisional, deliberative processes.
EPA public relations personnel have said the study was being held back so that it could be submitted to a peer-reviewed scientific journal for publication. That has not yet taken place.
The records released to Cox show that EPA bowed in 2004 to industry pressure regarding the manner in which the study results would be released.
I hope that future news accounts will be of the action that OSHA, FDA, and EPA are taking to protect worker and consumer health – and not of more consumers who’ve lost lung function after heavy consumption of a snack they thought was harmless.
Liz Borkowski works for the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services.