Culprit in 'popcorn lung' identified

Scientists have pinpointed an ingredient in microwaved popcorn that could be the culprit in cases of "popcorn lung", a disease which affects people who work in the popcorn making industry.

According to the Dutch research team, diacetyl, a component of microwaved popcorn could be the chemical that causes bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome (BOS), otherwise known as "popcorn lung."

Lead author Dr. Frits van Rooy, of the Division of Environmental Epidemiology at the Universiteit Utrecht, in Holland says their study found a cluster of previously undiagnosed BOS cases in a diacetyl production plant; he says the discovery supports the theory that an agent in the diacetyl production process causes BOS.

Bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome was first identified in 2001, when a group of workers at a plant in America that made microwaved popcorn all became sick; diacetyl is an artificial butter flavoring used in microwavable popcorn, pastries, frozen foods and candies, and has previously been linked to lung disease.

According to the research a process which takes place in the chemical when the popcorn is heated up could be hazardous when inhaled over a prolonged period of time.

The research team traced workers who worked at the diacetyl production plant between 1960 and 2003 and who were still alive; 175 agreed to complete exposure and respiratory health questionnaires and undergo lung function tests and clinical assessments.

An analysis of the test results clearly revealed that diacetyl had played a significant role in making people sick.

The researchers say this is the first study where cases of BOS were found in a chemical plant producing diacetyl and the spectrum of exposures was much smaller in the production plant compared with the popcorn processing plants, where a wide range of chemicals was identified.

Dr. van Rooy says the study establishes the presence of BOS, or popcorn worker's lung, in chemical workers manufacturing a flavoring ingredient with exposures to diacetyl, acetoin, and acetyldehyde.

He says any or all of these exposures may contribute to the risk of this emerging occupational disease.

The research is published in the online edition of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, published by the American Thoracic Society.

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