Popcorn Lung: Could a Favorite Snack Be Dangerous?

Wayne Watson, courtesy ABC News
Wayne Watson, courtesy ABC News

"I probably look like a fairly healthy guy but I only have, on a good day, about 53 % lung capacity," Wayne Watson tells ABC News. On Wednesday, a jury awarded the 59-year-old Denver native $7.2 million in damages against Gilster-Mary Lee Corporation, The Kroger Company, and Dillon Companies Incorporated because of a disease he allegedly contracted from his favorite snack, microwave popcorn.

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'Popcorn lung' is the informal name for bronchiolitis obliterans, an ailment usually associated with factory workers who inhale high levels of diacetyl, the chemical used in artificial butter flavorings. Symptoms include wheezing, dry cough, fatigue, and shortness of breath. The condition can require a lung transplant or even be fatal. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that lung biopsies of sick workers from plants that produce microwave popcorn show scarring of the bronchioles, the smallest airways in the lung, which restricts breathing. They recommend that factory workers handling artificial flavorings take precautions such as wearing respirators, keeping chemical containers tightly sealed, and getting regular breathing tests. A June 2012 study in the journal of Chemical Research and Toxicology also linked diacetyl to Alzheimer's.

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Watson didn't work in a popcorn factory but he says he did eat two to three bags of microwave popcorn a day for ten years and blames his disease on inhaling fumes from the buttery flavoring. He started having breathing problems in 2007. A singer with his local church choir, "My lung capacity just seemed to start diminishing and I couldn't sustain my notes like I used to be able to," he told CBS News. His physician, Dr. Cecile Rose, a pulmonary specialist took a detailed health history. "He had a lung condition that we know is related to something he was inhaling," Rose said. "… And it wasn't really until the end of his initial medical evaluation where I turned to him and asked him … was he exposed to or was he around a lot of popcorn? And his jaw dropped and he asked me how I would possibly know that about him." Later, air quality tests in Watson's home showed contamination in his kitchen to be at factory levels while he was making popcorn. He also says he would often smell the popcorn when he ripped open the bag.

Although hundreds of employees of popcorn factories have sued for popcorn lung related to diacetyl exposure-some winning settlements as large as $34 million--Watson was the first consumer to take action. Another consumer lawsuit against ConAgra followed in 2008. Larry Newkirk, a Spokane businessman, claimed to have developed the disease from fumes he inhaled from his daily four to six bags of the snack.

The good news for consumers is that the major producers of microwave popcorn stopped using diacetyl by 2008. However, some health advocates complain the substitutes are also dangerous if inhaled. Another issue is the waxy coating on microwave bags that contain a chemical substance called Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration called for companies to voluntarily stop using PFOA in microwavable bags but a full phase out won't occur until 2015. If you are concerned about microwave popcorn, safe alternatives are using an air popper or cooking on the stovetop.

Do you think $7.2 million is an appropriate reward? Please let us know in the comments below.