What Is Popcorn Lung?

A chemical vapor used to flavor some of our most popular snacks has been linked to a dangerous lung condition called “popcorn lung.” 

While diacetyl is thought to be safe to eat, it can cause serious damage to your lungs if inhaled. 

Workers in food manufacturing and processing plants are especially at risk of developing popcorn lung. Because of prolonged exposure to diacetyl while working, juries have awarded millions in compensation through personal injury and workers’ compensation claims. 

What Products Cause Popcorn Lung?

While these products themselves do not cause popcorn lung, the use of diacetyl for flavor can. 

Some of the most popular products that contain diacetyl include:

  • Microwave popcorn
  • E-cigarettes (vapes)
  • Potato chips
  • Some dairy products (milk, yogurt, butter, cheese)
  • Chocolate
  • Chewing gum

The danger of developing popcorn lung comes not from eating these products. Rather, the potential for harm comes from heating it before eating. Extended exposure to inhaling diacetyl is what puts food processing workers at such a risk for the condition.

Beyond diacetyl, another known cause of popcorn lung is acetaldehyde. This chemical is often used to make:

  • Ammonia
  • Chlorine
  • Metal oxide produced from welding.

Although diacetyl is known to have the ability to cause popcorn lung, the flavorings industry says there are more than a thousand ingredients that have the ability to cause breathing problems. 

You may also be more likely to develop popcorn lung if you’ve had a lung transplant or a stem cell transplant.

How Does Popcorn Lung Hurt You?

Known as bronchiolitis obliterans, popcorn lung occurs when diacetyl gets into your lungs. It can find its way into your lungs by getting into the small air sacs where your blood gets oxygen.

Once in your lungs, the diacetyl can then spread throughout the rest of your body. This can lead to your airways being seriously scarred and damaged – making it hard to breathe.

Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirm that more than 68 people have died from popcorn lung and more than 2,200 have been seriously injured from it.

How Is Popcorn Lung Treated?

There’s no known cure for popcorn lung right now but there are treatments available that can make it easier for you to breathe.

Some of the most common methods of treatment for popcorn lung include:

  • Oxygen therapy
  • Medication to help open your airways
  • Steroids
  • Cough medicine

The best way to prevent popcorn lung is to cut back on your exposure to diacetyl. For example, if you work in a food processing plant, you should make sure you have the right equipment to limit possible inhalation of diacetyl.

What Are the Symptoms of Popcorn Lung?

Studies show that most symptoms of popcorn lung take a while to develop, and include:

  • Increased coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weight loss
  • Fevers
  • Night sweats
  • Swelling of the skin
  • Eye and nose irritation.

Doctors often mistake popcorn lung for asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, or COPD. Often, a biopsy is needed to correctly identify the condition.

Can Vaping Cause Popcorn Lung?

Diacetyl is also used in many vaping juices. In one study, 51 flavored e-cigarette liquids were tested for the chemical. It was found in 39. 

This is in addition to the dangers of nicotine addiction often stemming from vaping.

Can I File a Lawsuit Over Popcorn Lung? 

Because of the dangers posed by popcorn lung, many victims have received compensation through personal injury and workers’ compensation claims. 

  • A 32-year-old man who worked in a food processing plant was awarded $20 million for exposure to diacetyl in the workplace.
  • A 59-year-old man was awarded $7.2 million after he developed popcorn lung from years of consuming microwave popcorn. His claim was the first reported outside of the food processing workplace setting. Jurors said the popcorn maker had not listed diacetyl on its label.

If you suspect you may have symptoms of popcorn lung, you should speak to your doctor about it. To be certain of the diagnosis, your doctor will probably order chest X-rays and CT scans. This is necessary to rule out any other causes that may show similar symptoms. 

Because popcorn lung is known to be fatal in some cases, you should not delay treatment for symptoms you are experiencing.

If a popcorn lung diagnosis is confirmed, you need to contact a personal injury attorney who specializes in workers’ compensation and product liability cases. Because the treatment for it can be expensive, a workers’ compensation or personal injury claim can help you shoulder the costs.