Doctors have known for some time that people who work in factories that produce microwave popcorn can get a debilitating lung disease from exposure to the chemical used to give the product a buttery flavor.
But until Wayne Watson showed up in the office of Dr. Cecile Rose, no one suspected a popcorn junkie like Watson could get “popcorn lung” simply by heating and eating one of America’s favorite snacks.
Rose, a pulmonary specialist at Denver’s National Jewish Medical and Research Center, cautioned TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira that the connection can’t be proved with absolute certainty. All she knows is that when Watson was referred to her, he had gone through every test and treatment for his diminishing lung capacity for a year without improvement.
At his first consultation with Rose, she took him through a 90-minute interview, going over everything that could possibly have contributed to his condition.
“Right at the end of the interview she said, ‘I’ve gotta ask this question, it’s going to seem weird, but do you ever eat microwave, butter-flavored popcorn?’ “ Watson recalled. “It was like lights went off, marching bands started to play. I said, ‘How did you know to ask that? I am microwave popcorn. I eat two bags of it a day every day.’ "
He’d been eating that much, he told her, for at least a decade. Watson didn't know why, but he noticed a change while singing that he could not explain.
“Several years ago during choir rehearsals, whenever I’d do a solo, I would notice my lung capacity was diminishing, and I wasn’t able to sustain the notes like I used to be able to,” he told Vieira. “Slowly my lung capacity went from the high 80s down to about the low 50s.”
He ended up at National Jewish, where he went through scans and biopsies and was put on inhalers and steroids. None of the treatments did any good. That’s when he was referred to Rose, who realized that his symptoms matched those of workers in popcorn factories who suffered from lung problems.
“He has blockage of his small bronchial tubes that led to cough and shortness of breath, and his disease was not responding to treatment with inhalers or steroids,” Rose said. “His biopsies showed that his bronchial tubes were blocked or obliterated in the same way that the workers who have developed this disease called bronchiolitis obliterans."
The diagnosis was a simple process of elimination, Rose said.
Kicking the habit
Watson stopped eating his two bags a day of microwave popcorn. “I’m real big into bananas and peaches these days,” he said.
He plays golf and walks the course, and since cutting out popcorn, he said he’s gotten steadily better.
“My lung capacity is gone back up to 75 percent and I can get along just fine with that,” he said.
The flavoring agent that has been linked to popcorn lung is called diacetyl. Flavoring manufacturers have paid out more than $100 million over the past five years to settle lawsuits filed by workers who have contracted the disease from exposure to the chemical.
One death from the disease has been confirmed.
Last week, Weaver Popcorn Co. of Indianapolis announced that it will replace diacetyl as a flavoring because of consumer concerns. Congress is considering legislation that would mandate safety measures for workers in the food processing industry who come in contact with the chemical.
Rose informed both the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control about Watson’s case, the first case of popcorn lung identified in a consumer. In an e-mail, the FDA said it is “carefully considering the safety and regulatory issues it raises.”
The Centers for Disease Control has not yet formulated a response.
The other big popcorn manufactures are ConAgra Foods, General Mills and the American Pop Corn Company, and all say they are working on new recipes for their products that will eliminate the need to use diacetyl, which occurs naturally in butter, cheese and fruits and is approved as a flavor ingredient by the FDA.
ConAgra, which makes Orville Redenbacher and Act II popcorn, responded to the story with this statement:
“We are fully confident that microwave popcorn is safe for consumers to prepare and eat. However, in order to eliminate even the perception of risk for consumers and to provide the safest possible work environment for employees who handle large quantities of diacetyl, we plan to eliminate the use of added diacetyl in our microwave popcorn products within a year."
In a pre-interview with TODAY, Rose emphasized that Watson’s case is unusual because he ate so much butter-flavored microwave popcorn. What effect, if any, the occasional bag might have on consumers is unknown.
Also, she said, “This is just related to the butter flavoring, not the popcorn itself.”