What is “popcorn lung” and how is it caused by microwave popcorn?

“Popcorn lung” is a term given to a serious lung condition that can be caused by an artificial flavoring formerly used in microwave popcorn.

The chemical diacetyl is a natural chemical that was used in microwave popcorn to simulate the taste of butter. It is this chemical that has been linked to serious lung disease after significant exposure to diacetyl. 

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a number of workers at a microwave popcorn plant developed the rare lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans. This is a non-reversible lung disease in which the airways of the lungs are restricted and can require a lung transplant. The article stated the cause of the disease was inhalation of diacetyl used in the making of microwave popcorn. 

In September of 2012, a man in Denver, Colorado received a $7.2 million verdict against makers of microwave popcorn.  He alleged he developed “popcorn lung” after eating two bags of microwave popcorn a day for ten years. The jury found in his favor. The defense argued his lung disease was caused by working with carpet chemicals over the years. The jury rejected the defense and found for the plaintiff.

Diacetyl is no longer used in the making of microwave popcorn. Sources dispute whether eating diacetyl can cause the same lung problems as inhaling it, which was an issue in the Denver case.

Either way, any risk posed by this chemical justified its removal from a common snack enjoyed by millions.

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