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Popcorn Lung Disease

What is ‘popcorn lung disease’ and could it affect workers in the UK?

In 2001, an incident in a US microwave popcorn plant gave rise to a new term: ‘popcorn lung’. An initial report showed that 130 workers at the plant had twice the national average rates of bronchitis and asthma. On further investigation, it was found that 24 workers had developed a rare and potentially deadly disease that destroys lung tissue, colloquially known as ‘popcorn lung’.

What Is Popcorn Lung?

Popcorn lung is better known as Bronchiolitis Obliterans. It is a non-reversible disease of the lungs in which the bronchioles (small airways in the lungs) become blocked with granulation tissue; a clot of the tissue fibrin that the body uses to heal wounds. Inflammation and scarring occur in the lungs, resulting in severe shortness of breath, a dry cough and wheezing. These symptoms can reveal themselves over a period of time or they can manifest suddenly and without warning. In severe cases, the only course of action available is a lung transplant.

Popcorn lung can be caused by the inhalation of the chemical diacetyl. Diacetyl is used to produce the butter flavouring in popcorn. It has even been found to be responsible for the development of popcorn lung in a man who ate two packets of microwave popcorn a day over an extended period of time. Both the consumer and the employees were able to bring successful compensation claims against manufacturers of popcorn and in 2007 the Flavour and Extract Manufacturers recommended a reduction in the amount of diacetyl used in the production of particular foodstuffs.

Not Just An American Problem

This initially seemed to be a US-based phenomenon, as different ingredients are used in the UK. However, Martin Muir, a 38 year-old Yorkshire man is suing his former employers, Firmenich, which describes itself as “the world’s largest company in the fragrance and flavour industry.” He worked in their food factory, producing flavourings for crisps and developed severe breathlessness after three years of exposure to one of the key ingredients that make the flavourings: diacetyl. Unfortunately, although he was removed from exposure to the chemical, his symptoms and lung function did not improve. After tests, it was estimated that he had the lung capacity of an 80 year-old. Martin said, “they reckon I’ve lost 25 to 30 percent of my lung capacity. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you try and do anything you realise it is.”

And the evidence suggests that Firmenich was aware of the seriousness of the diacetyl risk. In December 2003, two years before Martin’s diagnosis and over a year before he became sick, the US government’s National Institute for Safety and Health (NIOSH) sent an alert to 4,000 businesses that might make or use butter flavouring or diacetyl. This alert called for stringent controls, including “substitution of less hazardous flavouring ingredients or formulations where feasible.” There seems to be no reason to suspect that workers in the UK are in any way better protected than their US counterparts. The lack of cases here could be explained by UK doctors failing to recognise an unfamiliar condition with an unfamiliar cause, rather than supposing that popcorn lung does not occur here.

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