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Published: Sunday, 10/19/2003

Risk in an unexpected place

IS THERE a silent killer in microwave popcorn, one that preys on those who prepare and package the popular snack?

A 2000 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health - a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - made a strong case about serious respiratory risk for workers in microwave popcorn plants, and now, three years later, workers in a Marion, O., factory are afflicted with serious lung disease.

What's surprising is that it took so long for their employer, ConAgra Snack Foods Group, to check them out. One can be equally curious about why it took the government so long, after the CDC warned last year of a link between the flavorings and the appearance of fixed obstructive lung disease, to arrive in Marion.

The 2000 study surveyed worker health at the Gilster-Mary Lee popcorn plant in Jasper, Mo. It revealed that plant employees had more than three times the rate of airway obstruction found in a national sample and 72 percent reported work-related irritation to eyes, nose, and throat. Those in production had an assortment of symptoms doctors usually associate with chronic bronchitis.

The ailments mostly affect staff exposed to flavorings, especially those who mix them up, creating a haze of yellow dust in the process. A highly suspect element of that dust is diacetyl, which produces buttery smells. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites the buttery flavorings as the likely culprit.

In Marion, health investigators have found 29 cases of abnormal lung function among the 65 percent of 205 workers who allowed themselves to be evaluated.

ConAgra believes its manufacturing process is safe for employees. But the numbers make it clear the industry has a problem and needs to find a remedy.



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