Wednesday, September 05, 2007


An article recently published by the Associated Press notes that doctors in Denver have a patient who may have developed a condition called "popcorn lung", which until now has only been known to affect workers in factories that manufacture microwave popcorn. The potentially fatal disease seems to be caused by inhaling diacetyl, a chemical used in "buttery flavored" microwave popcorn.

Is this making you just a little nervous about buttery-flavored microwave popcorn?

According to the article, the unnamed patient microwaved popcorn "several times a day for years," and developed coughing, shortness of breath, and inability to exhale (to exhale??), which improved after he quit microwaving the popcorn. Airborne levels of diacetyl in the patient's home resembled those which have caused workplace safety lawsuits.

I have to ask this:
how much microwave popcorn did this guy EAT, anyway?? Was he feeding it to birds?? To the dog? Using it to pack shipments he sold on eBay (in which case, why buttered?)?

OK, one swallow does not a summer make, and one patient with a problem based on a really unusual level of consumption probably isn't a sign of a major public health issue. It's probably not damaging to your health to eat an occasional package of butter-flavored microwave popcorn. (I do wonder about the air in the office kitchen where I used to work; the fire safety people always wanted that door kept closed, and people regularly made microwave popcorn in there...)

But you know: it isn't that hard to pop your own popcorn, from the stuff you buy in a jar. If you don't want to do it on the stove in a pan, the old way (which is free), you can get a popcorn popper for somewhere around $20; and if you put butter on the popcorn, it's just butter, not diacetyl.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous6:49 AM

    This guy is a lab rat for the fact that diacetyl is not harmless, albeit that it took heavy exposure to produce this health disorder, and I too do not think that the occasional bag of diacetyl-enhanced microwave popcorn will kill anyone.

    But the larger issue, I think, is that diacetyl is just one more component in the toxic soup we breathe, although quite likely one of the lesser toxins (I might be using toxin too loosely here, since something that coats your lungs might not technically be a toxin).

    Also, I am reminded that repeated low exposure to a toxin can be more harmful than much less frequent higher exposure. And there is also the problem that the cumulative effect of toxins is greater than their simple sum. So add one more harmless-by-itself-in-tiny-amounts wonder of modern chemistry to the toxic burden which is apparently still either poorly understood or just the worry of the paranoid fringe (kind of like global warming to James Inhofe and depleted uranium dust to the military).

    I do like your advice, hedera, and real popcorn with real butter does taste better, although I have eaten my share of microwave popcorn. In future, I will make sure I don't have to breathe any diacetyl. I already avoid putting plastics in the microwave.

    Anonymous "The Sky Really Is Falling" David