By JANE ZHANG
September 6, 2007; Page D2

WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration is evaluating whether consumers, like workers in popcorn plants, can develop lung disease from inhaling a chemical additive used for butter flavoring in microwave popcorn.

A Denver physician said in a letter to the agency in July that a patient who had eaten several bags of extra butter-flavored popcorn each day for several years had developed symptoms similar to those of some microwave popcorn-plant workers.

The letter “does not present evidence” that consumer exposure to vapors of the chemical diacetyl, generated by microwaving popcorn, causes lung disease, said FDA spokesman Michael Herndon. He said the agency is studying the situation, and “carefully considering the safety and regulatory issues it raises.”

ConAgra Foods Inc., the nation’s largest maker of microwave popcorn including the Orville Redenbacher’s and Act II brands, said it is eliminating “within a year” diacetyl from its microwave popcorn.

“While we are fully confident that microwave popcorn is safe for consumers to prepare and consume, we plan to eliminate the use of added diacetyl in products in order to eliminate even the perception of risks for consumers and to provide our employees who handle large quantities of diacetyl regularly with the safest possible work environment,” said spokeswoman Stephanie Childs.

The industry in 2004 sold more than three billion bags, with sales totaling more than $1 billion, ConAgra said.

In 2000, a physician reported to the Missouri health department that eight workers from a microwave popcorn factory developed lung disease. Studies conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded that cumulative exposure to diacetyl vapor over time has the potential to cause serious lung damage and a condition known as bronchiolitis obliterans.

In April, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said workers at factories that make food flavorings as well as popcorn factories are at risk of contracting the hard-to-treat condition.

NIOSH has recommended that manufacturers substitute the chemical with less-dangerous ones, and that workers don masks and other protective gear. Links between the chemical and lung disease have been less clear in consumers, and the FDA has labeled the chemical “generally recognized as safe.” Last year, David Michaels, a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, petitioned the FDA to drop the designation.

Source: Wall Street Journal

 Health Blog: Microwave Popcorn and Lung Disease
 

Write to Jane Zhang at Jane.Zhang@wsj.com

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