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Popcorn Lung Chemical May Play Role in Cystic Fibrosis Infections: Study

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A new study suggests that the chemical diacetyl, which has been used to give microwave popcorn a “buttery” flavor, may not only cause factory workers to develop severe lung problems, but may also play a role in lung infections suffered by cystic fibrosis patients.

Diacetyl was previously removed from the manufacturing of microwave popcorn after it was linked to the development of the severe respiratory disease bronchiolitis obliterans, which has become more commonly known as “popcorn lung”.

In a new study published in The ISME Journal last month, researchers from San Diego State University indicate that the same molecule was detected in the lungs of individuals with cystic fibrosis, suggesting that diacetyl may play a role in flare ups.

Researchers were looking for a way to find out what caused cystic fibrosis flare-ups, which can induce severe coughing and is believed to lead to scarring of lung tissue. They found elevated levels of diacetyl in the gases breathed out by patients during those flare-ups.

The study indicates that the molecule may be an indicator of microbial infections striking cystic fibrosis patients. They theorize that diacetyl is produced as oral Streptococcus microbes undergo fermentation. When the diacetyl molecule interacts with other bacteria present, it can cause harmful side effects, such as the production of toxic compounds that could be the reason for cystic fibrosis lung damage as well as popcorn lung injuries.

Popcorn lung involves scarring and inflammation of small airways, known as bronchioles, leading to diminished lung capacity and breathing problems. The disease is irreversible and severe cases may require lung transplants and can lead to death.

More than 300, popcorn lung lawsuits have been filed throughout the country over the development of the respiratory disease. However, the vast majority of the claims were brought by workers or former workers at facilities that make microwave popcorn. Only a few popcorn lung claims have been brought on behalf of consumers of microwave popcorn who alleged they were exposed to sufficient levels of the chemical to cause illness.

The industry has since ceased using diacetyl in microwave popcorn, but the additive is still used in some other foods.

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