September 6, 2007 The Pump Handle 8Comment

By David Michaels

Earlier this week, we broke the story of the first case of “popcorn lung” occurring in person whose exposure to diacetyl was not workplace-related. Now more details are coming out, including an interview with Wayne Watson, the Colorado furniture salesman with disease. In today’s AP article, P. Solomon Banda writes that

“When Dr. Rose told me, she said: `Mr. Watson, there is a chemical in butter flavored microwave popcorn called diacetyl and it has been known to cause lung disease of this nature, with your symptoms.’ I went, `friggin unbelievable.'”

In many ways, Mr. Watson was very fortunate. By luck, he had been referred to Dr. Cecile Rose, chief occupational and environmental health physician at National Jewish Medical and Research Center. Dr. Rose is one of perhaps a dozen or two physicians in the entire country who have seen cases of popcorn lung.

It was only at the end of a long workup, when she could not find any possible cause of Mr. Watson’s lung disease, did she inquire about microwave popcorn exposure. Gardiner Harris of the New York Times wrote that

nothing in the Colorado man’s history suggested that he was breathing in excessive amounts of mold or bird droppings, Dr. Rose said. She has consulted to flavorings manufacturers for years about “popcorn workers’ lung,” and said that something about the man’s tests appeared similar to those of the workers.

“I said to him, ‘This is a very weird question, but bear with me. But are you around a lot of popcorn?’ ” Dr. Rose asked. “His jaw dropped and he said, ‘How could you possibly know that about me? I am Mr. Popcorn. I love popcorn.’ ”

Are there others like Mr. Watson with similar conditions but who have seen physicians without Dr. Rose’s knowledge of this disease? We hope not but we simply do not know.

Julie Steenhuysen at Reuters reports an FDA spokesperson’s response:

“We are currently evaluating the recent information on the association of inhalation of the food additive diacetyl with lung disease, and are carefully considering the safety and regulatory issues it raises.”

I hope they do this promptly. In the meantime, The Pump Handle has received several notes from individuals wondering if their symptoms, or those of a friend or loved one, are connected to diacetyl exposure. In response, we suggest calling their doctor’s attention to an OSHA web page on the health effects of flavoring related lung disease.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

8 thoughts on ““Popcorn Lung Victim: ‘Friggin’ Unbelievable'”

  1. Hello,

    I am a Senior in Food Science at The Ohio State University and thought that I would put some perspective on this issue.

    Diacetyl isn’t just a ‘food chemical’ . The reason the dfood industry uses it as a butter flavoring is because it is the chemical found in butter that gives butter it’s flavor. That’s right, if you want immediate action taken against diacetyl, then you will also be ridding the country of butter, buttermilk, sour cream, and some cheeses. Diacetyl is a natural byproduct of certain dairy foods.

    Does diacetyl become an airborne chemical once heated in a microwave? I really don’t know.

    The patient in this case reportedly ate microwaved popcorn several times a day. Does that seem like a lot to anybody else? I only eat popcorn several times a year, so I guess I’m on the other end of the spectrum. Do we regulate an additive based on the most casual consumer? No. Do we regulate an additive based on the consumer with the highest levels of consumption? No. The cancer patient and I are examples of the extremes of consumption for a particular product.

    There are other things that can be done that are more effective towards stemming the possible illness of those on the extremes of consumption. Diacetyl is an additive, and as an additive, the FDA lists the specific amounts that can be used whil still being GRAS. All the FDA would need to do is reduce the amount that can be used. That way, crazy popcorn cancer guy would have to eat several more bags of popcorn a day for several more years before anything would be a problem.

    Before that can be done though, the FDA need more scientific study done on this phenomena. Saying that there isn’t any other possibility isn’t good enough for science. Data must be reproducible under different studies by different people. Variables must be eliminated. Does this only occur with popcorn in a microwave? Does the packaging play a role? Could melting or heating butter on a stove (for non-microwave popcorn) carry the same effect?

    More questions need answered and more proof given before anything rational can be done.

  2. The FDA does not regulate amounts of GRAS in products nor do they have authority to do so under current regulations. A substance either is or is not GRAS.

    If it is GRAS it is assumed to be safe for everyone & I do not think this is too much to ask since we are talikng about chemicals added to food. Food works quite well without these chemicals.

    The added diacetyl is manufactured chemically; the diacetyl in butter is manufactured by cows. Cows may do it better or the 200,000 fold difference in concentration between the amount of diacetyl in butter and artificial flavorings may make a difference.

    We do not know how many consumers have been injured. For me one is enough but perhaps our civilization will come to a sudden stop or be set back to the stone age if we go back to butter. I doubt it. Maybe the companies should test their chemicals before they put them in food. Consumers think they do such testing. They don’t have to & they usually don’t.

    Of course sometimes others test them & the food industry ignors those tests. How many GRAS substances are animal carcinogens?
    More than 14.

    I have testified at the request of & examined injured workers who developed lung disease as a result of exposure to diacetyl.

    David Egilman MD, MPH

  3. One person out of thousands of people who are heavy consumers of microwave popcorn is statistically insignificant.

    I’m all for going back to basics and finding a way to keep real butter shelf stable so it can be used in the product.

    It’s the consumers that drive the companies to use the ingredients that they use. People wanted butter flavor without the calories and fat of real butter, so they got diacetyl. If consumers let these companies know that they want real butter, then that’s what they’ll get.

    For now, the smart thing is to prove whether this is really a problem, and if so, determine a safe amount that can be used.

    I think it is foolish for the FDA to base it’s policy on hype. If the study that was conducted can be repeated with the same results by different people, then the FDA should look into it.

  4. I have used microwave popcorn at the rate of two bags a day for at least the last five years. I keep getting severe bronchial infections which cost me dearly in time lost from work and just plain time lost. The last one started at the beginning of August and lasted all month. Now it hurts still in my chest and I still have the wheezy cough every day all day. My doctor doesn’t seem to know what to do with this, she’s talking steroids next and I really don’t want it. When I read about this I had to wonder if I am not one of those affected by the microwave popcorn fumes.

  5. Millions of consumers are begging for diacetyl in their microwave popcorn? Only in the strange world of ‘food science’ could this be claimed. Diacetyl IS a chemical that’s used in food. It doesn’t matter whether it occurs naturally in butter. It’s the chemical that’s added. But this shouldn’t be new information for a ‘Food Science’ major. This is the ‘science’ that loads our food with chemicals to enrichen a rapacious food industry. It’s unfortunate to see that OSU is turning out apologists for the industry. But then again I didn’t know that

  6. A report from a consumer’s widow that the butter microwave popcorn may cause her husband’s lung cancer and untimely death.My husband’s likes to eat popcorn. He popped a bag or two for seven years. His illness was misdiagnosed .The VA doctor said he had pneumonia. So he was treated with antibiotic. He did not get better. I took him to the family doctor to be admitted to the hospital to run some test. The test showed he had two tiny spots in the liver. I got hold of the Gastroenternology doctor to have a liver biopsy. It was diagnosed he had a lung cancer already mestastesized in his liver and bones. He went for a radiation treatment. Two weeks after he was diagnosed of lung cancer I loss him. I heard the news of Vapor from Butter Microwave Popcorn may cause cancer. A preliminary FDA data suggest that eating microwave popcorn may expose people to chemicals that break down to produce PFOA a suspected carcinogen. I asked myself . Is the butter microwave popcorn cause his lung cancer?.

  7. Just wondering. Anybody know how many casualties from diacetyl in popcorn compared to choking on the husks, or real butter related heart or gastrointensinal disease?
    Just trying to remember the forest.
    Personally, I plan to die from something.
    Old age would be nice, but even then there will be an assignable cause.
    Probably my irresistable attraction to macaroni and cheese.
    I sincerely hope nobody makes a bunch of money writing a book about it.

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