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Lung disease from popcorn?

18th March 2008

A chemical found in artifical butter flavouring used in microwave popcorn has been found to be harmful to the airways in a study in mice.

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A team at the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) under the National Institutes of Health found laboratory mice that inhaled diacetyl vapour over a period of three months developed lymphocytic bronchiolitis, which can lead to obliterative bronchiolitis (OB).

The study, published in the journal Toxicological Sciences, comes after concerns of a link between diacetyl inhalation and OB, a rare and debilitating lung diseases detected recently in workers who have inhaled gases made by microwave popcorn.

Co-author Daniel L Morgan, head of the Respiratory Toxicology Group at the NIEHS said the study was one of the first to evaluate the respiratory toxicity of diacetyl at levels relevant to human health.

Mice were exposed to diacetyl at concentrations and durations comparable to what may be inhaled at some microwave popcorn packaging plants.

The results seem to confirm the hypothesis that workplace exposure to diacetyl contributes to the development of OB in humans, but more research is needed.

Mice breathe exclusively through their noses and their upper respiratory tract is more sensitive to reactive vapours, while gases are less likely to penetrate the lungs in mice than in humans.

When the mice were exposed to high concentrations of diacetyl using a method that bypasses the nose, the researchers found lesions partially obstructing the small airways. More studies are under way to determine if these lesions progress to OB in mice.

Two larger studies are now planned to assess the toxicity of artificial butter flavouring, looking in more detail at two ingredients, diacetyl and acetoin.

The results will be shared with public health and regulatory bodies so they can set safe exposure levels for such chemicals.


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