Popcorn fumes linked to disease

Fumes from a fresh bag of microwavable popcorn may be harmful to inhale, according to a study led by a GW professor.

The main component in butter flavored popcorn, diacetyl, causes “deadly, irreversible lung disease,” said David Michaels, a research professor of environmental occupational health. The fumes from diacetyl are released when the popcorn is heated.

While a dozen workers at butter popcorn flavoring plants have claimed injury in recent years, doctors confirmed what they believe to be the first case of “popcorn lung” in a consumer this past summer. The 53-year-old Denver man would eat several bags of extra butter flavored microwave popcorn each day, and would open and inhale from freshly popped bags, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

“We cannot be sure that this patient’s exposure to butter flavored microwave popcorn from daily heavy preparation has caused his lung disease. However, we have no other plausible explanation,” wrote Cecile Rose, chief occupational and environmental medicine physician at National Jewish Medical and Research Center, in a letter to numerous federal agencies.

Michaels said he sees “a potential risk to the consumer,” although he does not have the resources to prove his theory. He writes a public health blog called the “Pump Handle,” where he posted a full transcript of the letter Rose addressed to the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Center for Disease Control regarding the dangers of diacetyl.

Though neither Michaels nor Rose have received a direct response from these federal agencies regarding their concerns, major popcorn packaging companies – ConAgra, Act II, Popweaver, and Trail’s End – have removed diacetyl from their flavoring formulas. Michaels said the unnatural chemicals being included in diacetyl’s place may be just as harmful.

Michaels’ research and beliefs have received so much national media attention that many stories available online today are not factually accurate.

Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs Lee Huebner said this occurrence is attributable to media’s interest in engaging and entertaining its consumers.

“The need of the news media to entertain intensifies steadily (making) it harder for serious issues to get as much attention as they ought to get,” Huebner said.

The public has certainly sensed the hype Huebner references. According to a poll taken by America Online, about 23,000 Americans said they will change their popcorn-eating habits based on Rose’s findings, and about 35,000 found it surprising that popcorn could be linked to lung disease.

Huebner added that the “media feel more and more pressure to build ratings or circulation in a crowded information environment” to explain the excessive interest and excitement over one man’s eating habits.

Michaels and his colleagues are left to wait for the Environmental Protection Agency’s case study on the effects of diacetyl, which is slated to be released in mid 2007.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.