Microwave popcorn ban: Could your firm be next?

Employees at Seattle City Hall have been issued a warning: Follow the directions on the microwave popcorn bag or it could be your last.

Apparently, Seattle city workers burn their microwave popcorn a little too often. Three downtown buildings have had to be evacuated after the burned popcorn triggered the smoke alarms. Last month, 400 people had to leave the 11-story Justice Center due to poor popcorn preparation, The Seattle Times reported.


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The Times quoted a memo from the city’s Fleets and Facilities Department, which warned that a ban may be coming if workers don’t get it right. “Please read and follow package instructions. Stay by the microwave and listen to the pop, to know when to stop."

It also said, “This is a serious issue which requires Fire Department emergency response, building evacuation and resetting of building systems." And a spokesman for Mayor Greg Nickels called the evacuations “pretty disruptive.”

Frank Video, a staff member for the Seattle City Council, pondered a future without microwave popcorn. "Perhaps what would happen is there'd be an underground market for microwave popcorn. People would sneak the microwaves into their offices; they'd do illicit popping.”

Turns out, there may be other reasons to ban microwave popcorn. The artificial butter flavoring contains diacetyl, which can cause an irreversible lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans (nicknamed "popcorn lung") if exposure is prolonged. Legislation is pending that would require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to minimize workers' exposure to diacetyl in popcorn and flavor manufacturing plants.

Conagra, one of the biggest makers of diacetyl, told ABC News it is confident that the only health risk is during the mixing process in the factory.

However, a Connecticut state lawmaker wants it banned until there is proof. Research is lacking on whether the chemical is safe for popcorn snackers. State Rep. Rosa DeLauro said, "We need to revoke its designation, test it further and protect the public health."

David Michaels, a former assistant secretary of energy who has been studying the issue for the last four years, told ABC News that he takes precautions.

"I know in my home when we make microwave popcorn, we open it up under the vent over the stove so no one breathes the fumes," he said. "I'd like to see some branch of the federal government actually go out and test what's coming out of these bags."


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