Popcorn Lung Disease

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Popcorn lung disease was first encountered in 2000, when the Missouri Department of Health and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) looked into a strange lung disease found in popcorn factory workers called bronchiolitis obliterans – obliteration of the bronchioles.  Bronchioles are the tiniest airways of the lungs.  A chemical used in artificial butter flavoring, called diacetyl, when released into the air and inhaled, is toxic to the lungs. 

Diacetyl causes a reaction in the bronchioles, inflammation, and subsequent scarring.  This scarring can then completely block the tiny airways, creating the permanent lung condition.  Symptoms include wheezing, shortness of breath, and difficulty breathing.  Often, the only medical solution is a lung transplant. 

Workers in any factory where diacetyl is used to make items such as frozen foods, candy, snack cakes, and potato chips, have recovered damages in lawsuits alleging asthma, bronchiectasis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic bronchiolitis, and even emphysema.  Workers in most of these cases received workers’ compensation payments; however, absent workers’ compensation, workers can recover damages directly from the employer.  Workers can also bring product liability claims if the manufacturer knew or should have known that diacetyl was harmful. 

In 2008, the second U.S. consumer of microwave popcorn was diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans.  The first consumer was diagnosed in 2007.  Both of them consumed large quantities of butter-flavored microwave popcorn: anywhere from 4-6 bags a day.  The problem is not in eating the popcorn, but in opening the hot bag and inhaling the steamy, buttery aroma. 

The consumer stated that he enjoyed the smell, because it made him feel like he was at the movies.  These consumers have legitimate personal injury and product liability claims, based on the inherent dangerousness of product design.  Damages include medical costs, loss of earnings, emotional damage, and loss of consortium.

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Last Modified: 05-22-2013 12:10 PM PDT

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