Fresh Popped Lung Disease

In early September ParentDish blogged about the growing concern over the safety of the butter flavoring used in microwave and movie theater popcorn. Here’s a refresher:
A pulmonary specialist at Denver's National Jewish Medical and Research Center thinks exposure to the fumes from microwave butter popcorn might be the cause of lung disease in one of her patients. She sent a letter to several federal agencies expressing her concerns. "We cannot be sure that this patient's exposure to butter flavored microwave popcorn from daily heavy preparation has caused his lung disease," said Dr. Cecile Rose. "However, we have no other plausible explanation."


Apparently the patient, a unidentified man, consumed "several bags of extra butter flavored microwave popcorn" every day for several years. The ailing patient's condition improved when he stopped making the popcorn.

This may sound far-fetched, but it's not. So-called "popcorn lung" is a real disease that has resulted in lawsuits by workers in food factories who were exposed to diacetyl, a chemical used to create that buttery flavor.
Popcorn lung? Are food-producers REALLY risking the health of their workers and customers for fake butter? The answer is yes. Why else would we have warnings like this? Take a look:


The dangers are real. I searched diacetyl in Wikipedia and here are some of the dangers that came up, for both workers and consumers—scary stuff—check it out:
Workers in several factories that manufacture artificial butter flavoring have been diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare and serious disease of the lungs. The cases found have been mainly in young, healthy, non-smoking males. There are no known cures for bronchiolitis obliterans except for lung transplantation.


While several authorities have called the disease "Popcorn Worker's Lung," a more accurate term suggested by other doctors may be more appropriate, since the disease can occur in any industry working with diacetyl: diacetyl-induced bronchiolitis obliterans…

…Dr. Cecile Rose, pulmonary specialist at Denver's National Jewish Medical and Research Center, in a letter, warned federal agencies or regulators that consumers, not just factory workers, are in danger of suffering the fatal popcorn lung disease from buttery flavoring fumes in microwave popcorn. David Michaels of the George Washington University School of Public Health first published Rose's letter on his blog. However, the only sample data known-to-date is the case where a consumer, who ate at least two bags of buttery microwave popcorn daily for 10 years, became diagnosed with the same disease affecting workers exposed to the substance, bronchiolitis obliterans. His lung problems were linked to breathing the vapors; although rare, the reported man's kitchen also had diacetyl levels comparable to those in popcorn plants.
Of course it’s always easier to relate to something when you attach a face to it. Meet Eric Peoples, a victim of Popcorn Lung. Here he is testifying in front of U.S. House Education and Labor Committee Subcommittee on Workforce Protections:


Unfortunatley for Eric, his story will not have a happy ending. According to Wikipedia the long-term prognosis for bronchiolitis obliterans is poor. Read on:
This disease is irreversible and severe cases often require a lung transplant. Evaluation of interventions to prevent bronchiolitis obliterans relies on early detection of abnormal spirometry results or unusual decreases in repeated measurements.
The whole diacetyl-popcorn lung situation spun Dr. Fuhrman into quite a tizzy. He emailed me his thoughts the other day and he didn’t pull a single punch. Have a look:
Diacetyl should be banned since we know it causes this irreversible and potentially deadly disease, but for some reason this poison is still allowed to be used on popcorn. Even breathing the fumes of the fake buttery flavor they put on the popcorn could damage a person's lungs, especially if you work behind the counter and serve it to people. We likely only know the tip of the iceberg about diacetyl poisoning.
When faced with all this information, I can’t imagine anyone coming to the defense of diacetyl. David Michaels of George Washington University certainly isn’t. He drops this great quote in The Washington Post. Enjoy:
"They're finding it there because they're looking there," said David Michaels of the department of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University. Michaels, assistant secretary of energy in the Clinton administration, accuses OSHA of "regulatory paralysis."


"It's not some carcinogen where you get cancer 30 years from now or something. The people are dying right in front of you," Michaels said. "You can't wait until you have all the evidence. You have to regulate it."
No doubt, a lot of experts are up in arms over diacetyl and bronchiolitis obliterans, but, will anything be done about it? The Angry Toxicologist doesn’t think so. Check it out:
Nothing will be done unless it’s regulated strongly, even by good companies and here’s why: Let say Bob’s Flavor Inc. wants to do the right thing and use an alternative flavoring that won’t hurt his workers. Bob knows, however, that this will drive up his prices and he’ll be driven out of the market by someone willing to do the wrong thing for a competitive advantage. Everyone is tied to the lowest cost operation, so the only way to make it safe for Bob to do the right thing is to level the playing field so that everyone has to do the right thing.
Okay, here’s my question. Is microwave and movie theater popcorn THAT precious? Stop eating it all together, and then, you’ll send one HELL of a message to rogue food producers and fat-cat cost-cutting businessmen—don’t you think!
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Julie Anne Edwards - June 14, 2012 7:40 AM

What about popcorn popped in cocnut oil, or air-popped - do you consider these healthy, Dr. Furhman?

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