As reported by the New Haven Register, May 17, 2007.

Questions Pop Over Risks of Chemical in Artificial Butter Flavor

By Abram Katz

Before the age of microwaves, all the popcorn cook had to worry about was burned kernels, boiling oil, the risk of a flaming pan and arteries narrowed by genuine butter.

Now popcorn comes in bags, along with a slug of gooey orange stuff containing artificial butter flavor, which apparently causes devastating lung disease in some of the workers who make it.

The question is, do consumers inhale enough butter flavor to put them at risk for the same breath-stealing pulmonary disease?

Public health experts suspect not, but no one knows for sure.

Which is why U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-3, has asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to yank the flavoring chemical, diacetyl, until it can be thoroughly studied.

The FDA has not answered DeLauro’s letter of more than a week ago, which has her simmering.

"No, there has been no response, and they are not working hard enough. We will follow up on the letter. These are issues of public health, so that’s why we’re going to be very aggressive," DeLauro said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, should the average family forgo steaming bags of exploded corn? Open the paper bag under a ventilator? Wear respirators? Or perhaps ignore the whole issue?

Diacetyl, which is used in cream and butterscotch flavors, was "generally declared safe" by the FDA in 1983. Twenty years later, studies began to show that people who synthesized and mixed diacetyl were at risk for bronchitis obliterans. Lungs fill with obstructive tissue, ulcers and fluid that prevents victims from taking a full breath.

However, working in a flavoring factory making diacetyl poses a far higher exposure than deeply inhaling delectable steam containing a trace of the chemical, said Dr. Carl Baum, director of medical toxicology at the Center for Children’s Environmental Toxicology at Yale.

Measuring the health effects of a whiff of diacetyl is difficult because the dose is so low, he said. Only a few molecules of diacetyl are necessary to trick the human nose into thinking "butter."

Microwave popcorn is a $1 billion a year business though, meaning substantial amounts are being consumed.

Effects depend on the dose, he said. Popping a bag at home yields only a modest amount, Baum said.

"Obviously people in factories are at a higher exposure," DeLauro said. "With consumers there is not an intense exposure. We need to see what the potential risks are for the consumer," she said.

DeLauro, chairwoman of the house appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, asked FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach to re-examine the issue of diacetyl’s safety.

Bronchitis obliterans has been recorded in microwave popcorn workers in Missouri, Iowa, Ohio, New Jersey, and Illinois. Flavor-factory employees in Ohio, California, Maryland and New Jersey also have the disease, she said.

Barnard Sangalli, toxicologist and administrative director of the Connecticut Poison Center, said, "We have to look at dose, the plant worker versus the consumer. Are people who make popcorn at theaters at higher risk?" he said.

"The amount of the chemical used in a half-cup of microwave popcorn is less than three hundredths of an ounce. At a consumer level, how toxic is it?"

If consumers are concerned they have several options, Sangalli said.

Look for natural butter substitutes. Air pop the popcorn and melt your own butter. Make popcorn the old-fashioned way, but be careful of splashing oil and fire.

"If it reduces your anxiety, open the bag under a fan," Sangalli said.

"When people have no control over what they’re exposed to they become anxious. When they have a choice over what they’re exposed to they feel less worried," he said.