No word yet on what effect it will have on the popcorn you buy in the theater or microwave in a bag at home, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is set to regulate the use of diacetyl–the buttery-taste substance in commercial popcorn.

Exposure to the chemical’s fumes can cause a horribly debilitating disease called popcorn lung, or more accurately, bronchiolitis obliterans. The condition leaves victims gasping for breath after the least bit of physical exertion, and no cure other than a lung transplant exists.

The popcorn industry in diacetyl’s wake is facing a rash of employee lawsuits totaling more than $100 million. While some companies have taken measures to reduce workers’ exposure to fumes from diacetyl, employees are still wary, so the pressure is on OSHA to come up with a solution.

OSHA at the start of the year listed a diacetyl regulation, or standard, as one of its goals for 2010, along with the regulation of combustible dust (which appears to be further along currently in the regulatory process).

While only a handful of businesses are affected by diacetyl, the whole episode provides a cautionary tale for business in general–OSHA is targeting workplace illness and injury with the goal of improving employee safety.

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