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Popcorn Lung Reported in Consumers

Feb 12, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

Popcorn Lung”, an illness once thought to be confined to snack food industry workers, is turning up in consumers with increasing frequency.  Popcorn Lung has been linked to diacetyl, a chemical used in microwave popcorn and other foods, to impart them with a rich, buttery flavor.

Popcorn Lung, known formally as Bronchiolitis obliterans, is a potentially life-threatening, irreversible ailment, for which the only cure is a lung transplant. Popcorn Lung inflames the bronchioles—small lung airways—causing scarring and “obliterating” appropriate airflow.

Some of the larger microwave popcorn manufacturers, such as ConAgra, have stopped using diacetyl. But the chemical is still used in thousands of products, including microwave popcorn, frozen foods, cake mixes and butter-flavored cooking oils. Unfortunately, it is not often listed on ingredient labels, so there is no way for consumers to protect themselves from exposure. When the chemical is heated, say in a microwave, it is released into the air in vapor form.

In 2007, a Colorado man named Wayne Watson became the first consumer to be diagnosed with Popcorn Lung. He had never worked around diacetyl, but he did have a decade-long, 2-bag-a-day microwave popcorn habit. Watson’s doctor theorized that the inhalation of diacetyl fumes from bags of microwave popcorn caused his illness. 

According to a report on, Watson’s case prompted his doctor, Cecile Rose, to send a letter to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and three other government agencies, warning that diacetyl was a potential health threat not just to workers, but also to consumers. The agency said it followed up with Dr. Rose, and also assigned a team of scientists to examine scientific research into types of diacetyl exposure, according to

But so far, the FDA has not taken any regulatory action, and officially considers diacetyl safe. The agency hasn’t indicated when it will finish its diacetyl review and issue findings.

Since the link between diacetyl and Popcorn Lung was established, hundreds of stricken snack industry workers have filed lawsuits against flavorings manufacturers. Consumers stricken with the disease have also filed Popcorn Lung lawsuits. Watson did so, and according to, has reached a confidential settlement with one defendant, a flavor developer. Watson’s lawyer also told that he recently filed Popcorn Lung lawsuits on behalf of three other consumers.

According to the Associated Press, more than 300 other  Popcorn Lung cases are pending around the country, and verdicts as high as $20 million have been awarded in previous lawsuits.


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