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Butter flavor can raise risk of deadly bronchiolitis obliterans

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By David Liu, PHD

Thursday Sept 20, 2012 (foodconsumer.org) -- In the U.S., butter flavor used for microwave popcorn has been found associated with increased risk of bronchiolitis obliterans in workers making flavored popcorn.  That was a story in 2008 that prompted the U.S. House to pass a bill to limit workers' exposure to diacetyl, a key ingredient found in artificial butter flavors commonly used in microwave popcorn.

Diacetyl can cause popcorn lung or bronchiolitis obliterans if people have been exposed to too much of it for too long.   Popcorn workers are at high risk of exposure to this chemical and more likely than the general population to develop the deadly disease. 

The U.S. is not alone.  It has been recently reported in Journal Brasileiro Pneumologies that in Brazil, four workers developed bronchiolitis obliterans by exposing themselves to artificial butter flavoring at a cookie factory.

Cavalcanti Zdo R of Sistema Único de Saúde, Hospital Barão de Lucena, Recife, PE, Brazil and colleagues reported that all four young men did not smoke and developed persistent airflow obstruction featured with reduced FEV1/FVC ratio and FEV1 at 25 to 44% predicted after exposure to diacetyl for 1 to 3 years without using personal protection measures at a cookie factory.

The findings from high resolution computed tomography indicated that the disease was bronchiolitis.   In one patient, surgical lung biopsy confirmed diagnosis of bronchiolitis obliterans accompanied by giant cells.

Bronchiolitis obliterans is a rare and life-threatening form of non-reversible obstructive lung disease in which the bronchioles (small airway branches) are compressed and narrowed by fibrosis (scar tissue) and/or inflammation, according to wikipedia.

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