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Microwave Popcorn Caused Lung Disease, Lawsuit Claims

Sep 9, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Microwave popcorn caused a Washington state man to develop a  potentially fatal ailment,  a new lawsuit claims.  The disease, bronchiolitis obliterans - also known as Popcorn Workers Lung - has been linked to diacetyl, a chemical used to give microwave popcorn and other snack foods a buttery flavor.

Popcorn Workers Lung is a potentially life threatening ailment, for which the only cure is a lung transplant. In 2003 and 2004, the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health found an association between the toxic substance and the development of Popcorn Workers Lung among hundreds of workers at six Midwestern popcorn factories. In April 2007, the Centers for Disease Control  reported that workers at food flavoring factories, as well as popcorn plants, were at risk for the disease.

Popcorn Workers Lung is a very rare disease, and it was thought to be limited to people working in the flavorings industry. But in July 2007, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) was informed that a patient who had consumed at least one bag of microwave popcorn every day over a 15 year period had been diagnosed with Popcorn Workers Lung.  This was the first such report of the disease in a consumer, and the FDA is currently investigating the incident.

Larry Newkirk, a Spokane, Washington businessman, was diagnosed with Popcorn Workers lung last month.  Newkirk told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that up until last year, he would eat six to seven bags of microwave popcorn every day - "especially the ones with lots of butter that taste like you're going to the theater."  Newkirk's lawsuit claims that his illness was caused by breathing in diacetyl vapors that were released from the popcorn.

Newkirk began having breathing problems several years ago.  He spent two years going from doctor to doctor, but was unable to find an answer to his ailment.  Then,  he started hearing stories about popcorn factory workers developing bronchiolitis obliterans, and its link to diacetyl.  Newkirk stopped his popcorn habit last fall.

Finally, Newkirk went to see Dr. Allen Parmet, a nationally known authority in occupational medicine.  It was Dr. Parmet who diagnosed Newkirk with Popcorn Workers Lung.  According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Newkirk is only the second person in the U.S. diagnosed with Popcorn Workers Lung, although other home users of popcorn are undergoing medical evaluation at this time.

Newkirks lawsuit names ConAgra Foods, the maker of the ACT II popcorn that he once ate on a daily basis, as a defendant in his lawsuit.  The suit also names Shopko Stores, where he bought the product, and at least five national and international companies that make or have made the diacetyl-based flavoring, as co-defendants.

In 2007, several makers of microwave popcorn, including ConAgra, General Mills and American Popcorn Co., took steps to remove diacetyl from their products.  There has also been a movement to convince federal regulators to police the use of diacetyl in the workplace, but those efforts have had mixed results.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which sets limits on how much of a dangerous substance a worker can be subjected to, said in 2000 that it had no standards for the flavoring and that it wasn’t a problem because the FDA considered diacetyl “safe.”   For its part, the FDA has maintained that it has no jurisdiction to evaluate hazards posed by breathing vapors from food additives.   It was only last year that OSHA started to investigate diacetyl exposure in snack food industry workers, and that agency is expected to look into setting standards for workers next month.

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