Microwave Popcorn Linked to Lung Harm
Rare, Deadly Lung Disease Hits Microwave Popcorn Lover
WebMD News Archive
Sept. 5, 2007 -- Inhaled fumes from microwave popcorn may have caused a
man's rare, deadly lung disease, a leading lung expert says.
The expert is Cecile Rose, MD, MPH, head of the division of environmental
and occupational health sciences at National Jewish Medical and Research Center
and associate professor of pulmonary medicine at the University of Colorado
School of Medicine.
Rose reported the case in a July 18 letter to the FDA, the CDC, the EPA, and
the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. None of these agencies has
yet issued a public health alert. The letter became public when published on
The Pump Handle web site, a public health blog.
According to her letter, the man complained of a worsening cough and
increasing shortness of breath. Lung function tests and imaging studies show he
has bronchiolitis obliterans -- obliteration of the tiny airways in the
It's a rare disease, first seen in 1985 in workers in food-flavor factories.
In 2002, the disease was seen in workers making microwave popcorn -- in
particular, those exposed to a buttery-tasting chemical called diacetyl. There
have been many other reports since then, with at least three deaths and many
patients awaiting lung transplants.
But Rose's patient had never been exposed to food-flavoring fumes. His only
exposure was to the two or more bags of microwave popcorn he consumed every
Rose took a team to the man's house and tested the air while microwaving
some popcorn. Air levels of diacetyl were similar to those in the area of a
microwave popcorn factory where workers were affected.
Many foods other than popcorn contain diacetyl. There's no indication that
eating these foods is dangerous. But breathing fumes containing diacetyl
appears to be very dangerous.
Microwave popcorn, of course, gives off hot fumes if the bag is opened
before the cooked popcorn cools. According to news reports, Rose's patient
liked to inhale the aroma of newly popped microwave popcorn. Rose reports that
his symptoms stopped getting worse when he stopped making microwave
Federal Action Needed
David Michaels, PhD, MPH, associate chairman of the department of
environmental and occupational health at George Washington University, runs the
Pump Handle blog. A year ago, he petitioned the FDA to stop designating
diacetyl as a food "generally recognized as safe" -- that is, an