September 7, 2007
microwave popcorn can kill you.
Original Story URL:http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=657362
Snack could be toxic
Doctor fears man's microwave popcorn habit led to lung disease
By RAQUEL RUTLEDGErrutledge@journalsentinel.com
Posted: Sept. 4, 2007
First, it hit the workers. From Milwaukee to Missouri and California, the fake butter flavor they mixed for use in microwave popcorn poisoned their lungs.
Now, in the first case of its kind, a doctor has found a possible link between serious lung disease and consumers of microwave popcorn.
"I was as surprised as I could be," said Cecile Rose, the chief occupational and environmental medicine physician at National Jewish Medical and Research Center, one of the nation's most prestigious lung disease hospitals.
Rose has seen many cases of factory workers' lungs destroyed by a chemical called diacetyl, responsible for giving microwave popcorn its buttery flavor, but never in a consumer of the popcorn.
Until she started seeing a 53-year-old Colorado man whose favorite snack was microwave popcorn.
Rose said she was stumped as to what was causing the man to cough, have shortness of breath and a thickening of the bronchial walls, among other symptoms. An extensive study of his medical, occupational, and environmental history turned up no explanation. Then she thought to ask him: "Do you eat microwave popcorn?"
She'll never forget his answer, she said.
It was his exclusive snack food preference, he told her.
"My jaw dropped," Rose said.
The man said he had been eating about two bags a day for 10 to 12 years.
Rose cautioned that she could not say definitively that the popcorn caused his illness but that "there was no other plausible explanation."
"I would not have reported this case if I didn't think there was a probable concern," she said.
Rose sent a letter in July to the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, alerting them to her findings.
None of the agencies has called her seeking details, she said. Her letter was made public Tuesday by a public health expert from George Washington University who has been following the safety issues surrounding diacetyl.
In 2001, diacetyl was linked to a severe lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans in workers at a microwave popcorn plant in Missouri. It has been tied to three deaths and serious illness in at least 200 people. So far, doctors have not found a way to reverse the symptoms.
In October 2006, the Journal Sentinel found a Milwaukee man whose lungs were severely injured after working with diacetyl in a local flavor plant. Another Milwaukee man nearly lost his eyesight after working with the chemical.
Wisconsin is home to more than 60,000 food-processing workers, ranking the state as one of the nation's top food manufacturers. As many as 280 plants around the state could be using diacetyl, federal health officials estimate.
In her research of the Colorado man, Rose said she measured the airborne levels of diacetyl during microwave popcorn preparation in the patient's home and found levels similar to those in the exhaust area of the factories where ill workers were first identified.
The FDA said last fall that it was opening an investigation into whether diacetyl poses a danger to consumers.
In a written statement Tuesday, the FDA said it was "currently evaluating the recent information on the association of inhalation of diacetyl and lung disease" and said the agency would be "greatly concerned if consumers were to experience harm as a result of the addition of diacetyl to foods such as microwave popcorn."
David Michaels, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University, posted Rose's letter on his blog.
In 2006, Michaels, and more than 40 other public health experts from around the country, petitioned the FDA to withdraw diacetyl from its "generally recognized as safe" list, citing evidence that there is no known safe level of exposure.
Michaels said Rose's findings present a serious public health risk and that the government is failing to act.
"This is a red flag," he said. "The agencies should be responding."
More than a year ago, the EPA studied the vapors released when consumers open a bag of microwave popcorn but never released its findings.
On Tuesday, spokeswoman Suzanne Ackerman said the agency is still waiting for the study to be published in a scientific journal before she can release the results.
"It's taken longer than we thought to get it published," she said.
She said the study was not a health effects study but an air emissions study. She said she didn't know if the EPA would conduct a health effect study on microwave popcorn.
John Hallagan, an attorney for the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, said diacetyl isn't easy to replace but that companies are looking for alternatives.
"We're recommending that (companies) who manufacture butter flavors containing diacetyl consider reducing its content to the extent possible," he said.
At least one major manufacturer, Indianapolis-based Weaver Popcorn Co., said last month it will replace diacetyl because of consumer concern.
From the Sept. 5, 2007 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Have an opinion on this story? Write a letter to the editor or start an online forum.