By David Michaels

Earlier this week, we broke the story of the first case of “popcorn lung” occurring in person whose exposure to diacetyl was not workplace-related. Now more details are coming out, including an interview with Wayne Watson, the Colorado furniture salesman with disease. In today’s AP article, P. Solomon Banda writes that

“When Dr. Rose told me, she said: `Mr. Watson, there is a chemical in butter flavored microwave popcorn called diacetyl and it has been known to cause lung disease of this nature, with your symptoms.’ I went, `friggin unbelievable.'”

In many ways, Mr. Watson was very fortunate. By luck, he had been referred to Dr. Cecile Rose, chief occupational and environmental health physician at National Jewish Medical and Research Center. Dr. Rose is one of perhaps a dozen or two physicians in the entire country who have seen cases of popcorn lung.

It was only at the end of a long workup, when she could not find any possible cause of Mr. Watson’s lung disease, did she inquire about microwave popcorn exposure. Gardiner Harris of the New York Times wrote that

nothing in the Colorado man’s history suggested that he was breathing in excessive amounts of mold or bird droppings, Dr. Rose said. She has consulted to flavorings manufacturers for years about “popcorn workers’ lung,” and said that something about the man’s tests appeared similar to those of the workers.

“I said to him, ‘This is a very weird question, but bear with me. But are you around a lot of popcorn?’ ” Dr. Rose asked. “His jaw dropped and he said, ‘How could you possibly know that about me? I am Mr. Popcorn. I love popcorn.’ ”

Are there others like Mr. Watson with similar conditions but who have seen physicians without Dr. Rose’s knowledge of this disease? We hope not but we simply do not know.

Julie Steenhuysen at Reuters reports an FDA spokesperson’s response:

“We are currently evaluating the recent information on the association of inhalation of the food additive diacetyl with lung disease, and are carefully considering the safety and regulatory issues it raises.”

I hope they do this promptly. In the meantime, The Pump Handle has received several notes from individuals wondering if their symptoms, or those of a friend or loved one, are connected to diacetyl exposure. In response, we suggest calling their doctor’s attention to an OSHA web page on the health effects of flavoring related lung disease.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

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