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.
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"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
It is a rare, irreversible lung disease that is caused by the blockage of tiny airways in the
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
"(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
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
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
"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
"It is not possible for consumers to protect themselves in the current environment," McClain
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
Stay with 10TV News and 10TV.com for additional information.
February 4, 2010:
Common Food Flavoring Changed Lives Forever