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Frequently Asked Questions About Popcorn Lung Disease

QUESTION: What injuries are caused by inhaling butter flavoring?

ANSWER: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted a series of studies that determined that butter flavor and the diacetyl in butter flavoring cause or contribute to cause a lung injury called bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome. Frequently, persons suffering from bronchiolitis obliterans are mistakenly diagnosed with asthma or emphysema.

QUESTION: What are the main respiratory symptoms?

ANSWER: According to NIOSH in its NIOSH Alert, "the main respiratory symptoms experienced by workers with fixed airways obstruction include cough (usually without phlegm) and shortness of breath on exertion. These symptoms typically do not improve when the worker goes home at the end of the workday or on weekends or vacations. The severity of the lung symptoms can range from only a mild cough to a severe cough and shortness of breath on exertion. Usually these symptoms are gradual in onset and progressive, but severe symptoms can occur suddenly. Some workers may experience fever, night sweats, and weight loss. Severe cases do not respond to treatment. Persons with bronchiolitis obliterans have often been misdiagnosed as having asthma.

QUESTION: Is bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome curable?

ANSWER: No. There is no cure. The lung damage caused by flavoring chemicals is permanent. Some patients have reported some relief of symptoms with medical treatment prescribed by pulmonary specialists.

QUESTION: What is Diacetyl?

ANSWER: Diacetyl is a natural constituent of butter. It gives butter the buttery taste and smell. Flavor companies increase the amount of diacetyl in their products to increase the butter flavor and taste. This increase is thought to be dangerous.

QUESTION: Is butter flavored microwave popcorn safe to eat?

ANSWER: Presently, the question is not, is it safe to eat, but rather, is it safe to breathe. Workers who have developed lung disease are believed to have developed the injury from inhaling butter flavoring. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) began a study to determine if popping microwave popcorn is safe to inhale.

QUESTION: If butter flavor is safe to eat, why is it unsafe to inhale?

ANSWER: Diacetyl is a chemical in the ketone family It is a volatile organic compound although the body can metabolize small amounts of diacetyl by ingestion with no known health hazards, it is injurious to breathe in larger amounts.

QUESTION: How do I get NIOSH to visit my work place?

ANSWER: Contact NIOSH to request a Health Hazard Evaluation. NIOSH cannot just go to a work place unless allowed in by an employer or unless three employees ask NIOSH to make an inspection.

QUESTION: Before the flavor companies made and sold diacetyl or butter flavor, did they test the products to see if they could be harmful?

ANSWER: No. However, certain suppliers performed tests of diacetyl before the injuries were known and these tests showed severe damage to the lungs of rats.

QUESTION: Has OSHA determined if there a safe level of exposure to butter flavoring fumes/dusts or to diacetyl?


QUESTION: Is it only people who mix butter flavoring who are at risk?

ANSWER: No. Persons have been diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans who were not mixers. Persons who worked on packing lines, in laboratories testing products and elsewhere in the popcorn plants have also been diagnosed.

QUESTION: Has butter flavoring and diacetyl been used in products other than microwave popcorn?

ANSWER: Yes. Butter flavoring has been used in a wide variety of products including margarine, cheese, ice cream, candy, root beer, colas, cakes and cigarettes.

QUESTION: What can I do to protect myself if I work with diacetyl or butter flavoring?

ANSWER: NIOSH published a booklet called NIOSH ALERT: Preventing Lung Disease in Workers Who Use or Make Flavorings. This booklet contains many recommendations to protect the health of people working with or around flavoring and flavoring ingredients.

QUESTION: What can I do if I believe that I have been injured by butter flavoring or diacetyl?

ANSWER: First, you should notify your employer in writing that you may have been injured. Second, you should ask your employer for copies of the Material Safety Data Sheets for products that you have used or were used around you by others Third, contact our office to arrange for a no-cost consultation.

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An Independence, Missouri, law firm focusing on helping families across the United States whose loved ones are afflicted by popcorn lung disease.