Popcorn lung gets renewed attention following court settlement

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
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A man in Denver Colorado, who ate microwave popcorn, two bags a day for years, developed popcorn lung. A recent court settlement has drawn attention to the disorder. The Denver man has settled claims against FONA International Inc., formerly Flavors of North America Inc., and is the first consumer to settle a lawsuit after being diagnosed with popcorn lung.

The condition is linked to a chemical added to microwave popcorn, diacetyl. Popcorn lung is medically known as bronchiolitis obliterans, but developed a new name in 2007 when it was found among popcorn plant workers. The disease causes inflammation of the small airways in the lungs called the bronchioles. Scarring occurs, obliterating proper air exchange. The inflammation of the lung occurs from the inhaling chemical irritants that include diacetyl used to produce that buttery popcorn flavor, leading to the term popcorn lung.

The popcorn lung lawsuit settlement follows a suit filed in 2008 by the microwave popcorn consumer in Denver. Hundreds of popcorn factory workers have been affected with bronchiolitis obliterans from the inhalation of diacetyl from vats.

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Following the attention put on popcorn lung from inhaling diacetyl, some of the major microwave popcorn manufacturers removed the chemical. Wayne Watson, the Denver man who received the settlement likely inhaled 0.5 and 3 parts per million diacetyl in his kitchen from the microwave vent, based on hospital testing.

Factory workers have also received protection from developing popcorn lung (bronchiolitis obliterans) through procedural changes in the popcorn manufacturing process. According to the OSHA website, diacetyl can potentially cause “eye, mucous membrane, respiratory system, skin irritation; persistent cough, phlegm production, wheezing, dyspnea (shortness of breath); unusual fatigue;” mild fever or generalized aches, and skin rashes. It can also cause bronchiolitis obliterans, or popcorn lung, as the condition has been dubbed.

The FDA has approved diacetyl as a food flavoring, finding no harm to the public when used in small amounts, though questions have been continuously raised about the safety of the ingredient, determined to have caused popcorn lung in factory workers, and now resulting in a lawsuit settlement for a Denver man who developed popcorn lung from consuming microwave popcorn.

Resources:
American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine Vol 176. pp. 498-504, (2007)
FDA.gov
OSHA

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