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Kernels of Truth about “Popcorn Lung”

Posted: October 6th, 2012 | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Perhaps you heard the recent news story about a man who was awarded millions of dollars in damages after developing a pulmonary condition called “popcorn lung”. The man developed this condition after eating two bags of microwave popcorn every day for ten years. So what is popcorn lung and is microwave popcorn safe to cook and eat?
Popcorn lung is caused by inhaling diacetyl, a chemical used to give popcorn and other foods their buttery flavor and aroma. Diacetyl, also called 2,3-butanedione, is a volatile chemical substance that readily enters a vapor phase when heated. In vapor form, this chemical can easily be inhaled into a person’s lungs.
Food flavors containing diacetyl have been linked to bronchiolitis obliterans, an irreversible lung condition that occurs when the smallest airways in the lungs are narrowed/ compressed by inflammation or scar tissue, restricting airflow. This lung condition is characterized by symptoms such as dry cough, worsening shortness of breath on exertion and wheezing. Usually, these symptoms are gradual in onset, progressive and show little or no response to medical treatment. Popcorn lung is most often found in individuals who are exposed to diacetyl in an occupational setting (typically one that manufactures food products containing the chemical), not consumers.
People exposed to high levels of diacetyl may experience fever, night sweats, and weight loss. Some can also present with mild skin, eye or nose irritations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were eight reported cases of popcorn lung in the popcorn manufacturing plant in Missouri between 2000 and 2002 and an additional eight reported cases in California between 2004 and 2007. To reduce occupational exposure to diacetyl, The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends the use of NIOSH-certified air-purifying respirator equipped with organic vapor cartridges in combination with particulate filters. Personal protective equipment such as gloves and aprons made of rubber and Teflon would also be effective in prevention against skin exposure. Click here to learn more about the hazards of occupational exposure to diacetyl.
The good news is that the four companies, which make up 80 percent of the popcorn market, voluntarily removed diacetyl from their products in 2007. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), diacetyl is of low toxicity when consumed. In addition, the FDA states “there is no evidence that in the available information on diacetyl that demonstrates or suggests reasonable grounds to suspect hazard to the public when they are used at levels that are now current or that might reasonably be expected in the future”.
The U.S. produces 498,000 tons of popcorn each year and many people enjoy this product in moderation without adverse consequences. And as of now, the FDA has not taken any steps to restrict the use of diacetyl in food products.
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