Microwave popcorn serves up a doubly toxic concoction

In these modern, toxic-chemical ridden times, dusting off some old ways may be a life saver. Like noisily popping our popcorn on the stove.

In these modern, toxic-chemical ridden times, dusting off some old ways may be a life saver.

Like noisily popping our popcorn on the stove.

It’s time we said adios to microwave popcorn and its deadly popcorn spice. The white-bagged snack that goes ‘beep’ in the night has been killing us with its fake buttery fumes — and slowly choking the life out of us with its plastic-coated bag.

I happen to prefer the unchemical taste of stovetop popcorn. Almost as much as I enjoy preparing it.

Standing over the stove, I like to peer through the pot’s glass lid and bear witness while the first cluster of kernels bursts into a clatter of fluffy white clouds. I like to drip melted yellow butter over the featherweight bowlful and sprinkle it with a handful of salt. There’s nothing like an opening show before cozying down for a movie.

But I have certainly eaten my share of microwaveable popcorn. And some of us have probably enjoyed one bag too many.

Last month, the Seattle-Post Intelligencer reported that microwave popcorn connoisseur Larry Newkirk, who ate three or four bagfuls a day, had “popcorn lung.”

Newirk’s was the second consumer case of the deadly disease; Wayne Watson of Denver, who ate two to three bagfuls a day, was the first, as originally reported a year ago by The Pump Handle, an alternative newspaper that reports on environmental health issues (thepumphandle.wordpress.com).

Most of the victims have been microwave popcorn factory workers or flavour factory workers.

Butter-flavoured microwave popcorn had been almost universally flavoured with the chemical diacetyl, a natural byproduct of fermentation that occurs naturally in alcoholic beverages and which is added to foods such as margarine and microwave popcorn for its buttery taste.

But popcorn companies started replacing it last year after the mainstream press got wind of “popcorn lung.”

The Washington Post reported in May, 2007, that diacetyl vapours were likely responsible for at least one death.

But “popcorn lung,” or “popcorn workers lung” had been acknowledged years before.

In 2005, a Missouri jury awarded a popcorn factory worker with the lung disease $2.7 million. Since 2002, flavouring manufacturers have paid victims more than $100 million.

Adding to the chemical nightmare is microwave popcorn’s container.

The inside lining of its characteristic white bag is made of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). It is the same chemical used to make the DuPont brand nonstick substance Teflon, which still coats much of our cookware. The chemical prevents oil from leaking through the bag’s outer paper.

The nonprofit watchdog organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) calls PFOA and its close chemical relatives “the most persistent synthetic chemicals known to man.” There is no getting rid of PFOA; it accumulates quietly in our tissues over our lifetime.

The likely carcinogen is estimated to be in the bloodstreams of 90 per cent of humans and has been reported to have been found in polar bears.

PFOA toxicity is widely acknowledged today, yet there has been no widespread banning of it, such as we’ve seen with the baby-bottle plastic bisphenol A (BPA).

DuPont, however, which makes over $1 billion a year selling Teflon and other PFOA products, according to a story in the May-June, 2007 edition of Mother Jones magazine, plans to phase it out.

And yet ironically, but not surprisingly for a company that rakes in nearly $50 billion annually, DuPont has consistently denied any links to between PFOA and cancer.

“DuPont has always known more about Teflon than it let on,” writes Lesley Savan in Mother Jones.

“Two years ago the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] fined the company $16.5 million — the largest administrative fine in the agency’s history — for covering up decades’ worth of studies indicating that PFOA could cause health problems such as cancer, birth defects and liver damage.

“The company has faced a barrage of lawsuits and embarrassing studies as well as an ongoing criminal probe from the Department of Justice over its failure to report health problems among Teflon workers. One lawsuit accuses DuPont of fouling drinking water systems and contaminating its employees with PFOA,” writes Savan.

Microwave popcorn bags have the most PFOA of any food wrapper. And its toxicity increases when the popcorn bags are heated (just like bisphenol A).

Add PFOA to diacetyl and I can’t think of any reason why microwave popcorn has not been ordered off the shelves by governments everywhere — and microwave popcorn factories shut down.

Bronchiolitis obliterans, or constrictive bronchiolitis, caused by diacetyl vapours, wounds the lungs and fills them with fibrous tissue. The only cure is a lung transplant.

Thankfully, food manufacturers are reconsidering their use of the chemical agent.

In particular, ConAgra Foods Inc., maker of Orville Redenbacher and Act II microwave popcorn brands, and Weaver Popcorn Company, which says it produces nearly 30 per cent of the world’s popcorn, have both voluntarily stopped using diacetyl as an artificial flavouring.

DuPont, for its part, has generously volunteered to phase out PFOA in its products by 2015. Another company, 3M began its PFOA phaseout in 2000.

Businesses like these, which react relatively quickly to the bad press about their products, are being applauded.

But of course the real story is, how long have they known what the press did not?

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