On par with ramen noodles, microwave popcorn is one of the top snacks consumed by college students. However, there is a serious condition associated with this microwave popcorn that you may not have heard of. It’s called bronchiolitis obliterans, but it is better known as popcorn lung.
Popcorn lung is an irreversible and severe condition. It is caused by inhalation of the flavoring ingredient, diacetyl. With popcorn lung, the small air sacs in the lungs become scarred. The early symptoms of popcorn lung are coughing and a shortness of breath. Later symptoms have been reported such as fever, loss of weight, and night sweats. Those with very severe cases may experience inflammation of skin, eyes, nose, and/or throat. If diagnosed early enough, avoidance of diacetyl may cause symptoms to decrease, but the condition is not currently reversible. Diagnosis of the condition is also very difficult. It is necessary to perform chest X-rays, lung function testing, and CT scans. An open lung surgery is also needed to confirm the diagnosis.
This condition first became noticed in workers of microwave popcorn factories in August of 2000. After more cases were reported, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) did in depth research on this condition and issued a report called NIOSH Alert: Preventing Lung Disease in Workers Who Use or Make Flavorings. They had found that these cases of factory workers getting this condition were all involved with flavoring. They cited a study done on animals that showed breathing in vapors from diacetyl caused damage to air pathways.
The condition first became widely known to the public in 2012 when a man named Wayne
Watson sued popcorn manufacturer, Gilster-Mary Lee Corp. for giving him popcorn lung. Watson was awarded a settlement of $7 million. Watson had reported eating 2 bags of microwave popcorn daily for 10 years. Popcorn lung had not been reported outside of popcorn factory workers because the condition is only brought on by large amounts of inhalation of diacetyl vapors.
But this story made headlines, and public outcry led the most prominent popcorn manufacturers to remove this flavoring agent from their recipes. But that doesn’t mean that diacetyl is removed from all popcorn brands. Unfortunately, the food labels won’t tell you if diacetyl is an ingredient in your popcorn. FDA regulations allow companies to list diacetyl as “natural and artificial flavorings” because it is deemed safe to use by the FDA.
So in conclusion, if you are eating microwave popcorn made by the popular companies such as Orville Redenbacher, Act II, Pop Secret, and Jolly Time you have nothing to worry about. These brands have removed the dangerous flavoring from their recipes. If you are eating microwave popcorn made by a smaller company, you may not be able to know if the product contains diacetyl. But if you eat popcorn in moderation, unlike Wayne Watson, you are also at a very low risk of contracting this condition. Although the hazard of contracting popcorn lung is very serious, the overall risk of contracting this condition is very low if you expose yourself to low levels of diacetyl.