Food flavorings containing diacetyl pose a threat to workers and can be eliminated using fume extraction systems
Activities such as sharing popcorn while watching a movie, drinking hot cocoa on a cold night, even the simple act of eating crackers may take on a different meaning once one becomes aware of the chemical ingredients that have gone into the flavorings of their favorite snacks.
While not considered unhealthy to consume, various food seasonings can cause grave respiratory illnesses in those who manufacture them. (1)
The additives of concern are Food Flavorings that Contain Diacetyl (FFCD). Diacetyl is a VOC (volatile organic compound) that evolves naturally and is also produced synthetically. Biological diacetyl is formed within the fermentation process and can be found in low concentrations in foods such as cultured milks, eggs, cheese, beer and some wines. It also exists in fruits and honey and is formed during the coffee bean roasting process. (2) As far as human consumption is concerned, the FDA deems it safe. In fact, at low levels, diacetyl is considered desirable in beer and wine owing to its ability to give the beverages a buttery taste and slippery feel on the tongue. But for workers involved in its manufacture, there are potentially fatal hazards if exposure levels are elevated and air quality is poor.
Diacetyl exposure exists in any occupational setting where workers can inhale its vapors during food and beverage production. Facilities that produce any of the following items pose potential risks to workers: microwave popcorn, chips, pretzels, cake or flour mixes, cocoa powder, margarine, butter, dairy products, and candy. Workers at bakeries that produce cakes, cookies and bread, and staff at breweries and coffee roasting facilities are also potentially exposed to diacetyl. The use of butter-flavored cooking oil products to prepare meals in restaurants may also lead to worker exposure. (3)
FFCDs are volatile, meaning that they can evaporate into the air from their liquid or solid form and can be easily inhaled. They can also be respired in powder form if airborne dust is created in the production process. (3)
The most severe of the respiratory diseases workers have contracted from diacetyl over-exposure is called bronchiolitis obliterans, also known as “popcorn lung”. Popcorn lung, an irreversible lung disease, was first associated with FFCD inhalation in workers at a microwave popcorn plant. The disease results after diacetyl chemicals cause inflammation and scarring which then triggers a thickening and narrowing of the breathing airways. This results in respiratory symptoms such as chronic dry cough, shortness of breath, wheezing and excess phlegm. The vapors can also generate pain and fever while causing fatigue, drowsiness, and headache. (4) The symptoms range from mild to serious and do not improve once established. The inflammation, if severe enough, can require a lung transplant in order to avoid suffocation. The loss of pulmonary function associated with severe bronchiolitis obliterans is permanent. Some have died.
Diagnosing “popcorn lung” is complicated. Bronchiolitis obliterans is a rare disease; not all doctors are familiar with it or its symptoms. It is estimated that over the years, many employees have been misdiagnosed with asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and/or pneumonia. (5)
There are countless workers today who could be exposed to varying levels of diacetyl from FFCDs. Steps can and should be taken within the workplace to reduce occupational exposure to FFCDs. (6) This can be achieved by workers wearing protective equipment and by installing air purifying systems.
At Air Systems Inc., we assist our customers in the food flavoring manufacturing industry by identifying areas of possible air impurities and supplying them with superior products to help them implement their indoor environmental safety programs.