'Popcorn Lung' Chemical Affecting More Than Factory Workers

Published: .
Updated: .

Several consumers have come forward with a rare lung disease, claiming it is from the same dangerous chemical that is used in butter flavoring.

The government has been aware of the illness that is caused by diacetyl, a chemical found in microwave popcorn and other products, 10TV's Anietra Hamper reported.

Wayne Watson loved microwave popcorn.  He would have two bags of it every day.

SLIDESHOW: Images From Report | SPECIAL SECTION:  10 Investigates

"Who would reasonably think that popping popcorn in your own home - no matter how it's packaged - would turn into an agent for toxic lung disease?" Watson said.

Hamper visited Watson in his hometown of Centennial, Colo.  He made national headlines when he was the first consumer who was diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans, also known as "popcorn lung."

It is a rare, irreversible lung disease that is caused by the blockage of tiny airways in the lungs.

Watson said that he first noticed the issue during a church Christmas concert.  During a solo, Watson, a baritone tenor, realized that he was struggling for each breath and did not realize that night that his life would change.

"I wasn't able to sustain the notes like I should be able to," Watson said.

In 2007, Dr. Cecile Rose of the National Jewish Health Center in Denver diagnosed Watson with bronchiolitis obliterans.

"(Rose) said, 'I have one more question.  It's going to sound really weird, but bear with me - are you around, or do you eat a lot of butter-flavored, artificially butter-flavored popcorn?'" Watson said.  "I (almost) fell out of my chair.  I was literally astonished."

Diacetyl is in more than 6,000 products, including microwave popcorn, frozen foods, cake mixes and butter-flavored cooking oils.  When heated, it is released in a vapor form, Hamper reported.

Watson's two-bag-a-day popcorn habit was not the problem.  Instead, it was the continuous inhalation of the rich, buttery vapors that poured out with each snack.

The disease afflicts hundreds of popcorn and food plant workers across the U.S. who work near the chemical.  There is no cure.  Those who don't die or end up on lung transplant lists simply live with the debilitating capacity to breathe, Hamper reported.

Watson has to wear oxygen at night because he now has 50 percent lung capacity.  He has difficulty with the simplest of tasks.  Walking up the stairs is even a struggle.

Until his diagnosis, bronchiolitis obliterans was thought to be only a popcorn worker's disease.  After diagnosing Watson, Rose sent a letter to four government agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, warning that diacetyl was a potential health threat not just to workers, but also to consumers.

According to the FDA, it followed up with Rose and incorporated her findings in its review.  They also assigned a team of scientists to examine scientific research into types of diacetyl exposure. The FDA said that it has not ruled out any regulatory option.

"We're looking at the available information we have on the potential for consumer exposure, and how that relates to the available safety data," said Dr. Mitchell Cheeseman of the FDA.  "At this time, we still consider diacetyl used as a flavoring agent to be safe for consumers."

While the FDA looks into consumer exposure, lawmakers in Washington are saying they are keeping a close on the FDA's next move.

"This is something we're focusing on with them, and we want to see the FDA either reassure us with equivocation or move forward on telling the public this substance is questionable," said Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown.

Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro chairs a House committee that appropriates funds to the FDA.  She made a commitment to Hamper during 10TV News' visit to Washington to further examine the consumer issue.

"We have to be advocates for consumers," DeLauro said.  "I'm sure there's some people that don't even know if they have difficulty - what it might be stemming from - so it's an education process as well.  Then, you can hold feet to the fire."

More people are coming forward with popcorn lung cases.  Attorney Ken McClain is representing at least three other consumers with pending lawsuits after they were diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans.

"It is not possible for consumers to protect themselves in the current environment," McClain said.

Diacetyl is not found on ingredient labels.  The only indications of its presence are words like "enhanced butter flavoring."

Vapor concentrations in consumer products are minimal, compared to occupational exposure.  There are no current regulations of the chemical and limited testing being conducted, so no one knows how much exposure it would take to make consumers sick.

"I don't think these companies thought a consumer could ever be exposed to enough of it to matter," Watson said.

Some companies who have stopped using diacetyl have it listed on their products, saying "No diacetyl."  During 10TV's six-month investigation, we also discovered that researchers from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the research branch of the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, are currently testing the substitutes being used for diacetyl and have found that most of them are as toxic - and in some cases - more toxic than diacetyl.

The FDA still considers diacetyl safe, so it is not telling people not to use products with it in it.

Stay with 10TV News and 10TV.com for additional information.

More Information:

Previous Story:

February 4, 2010:  Common Food Flavoring Changed Lives Forever