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What is Popcorn Lung?

By O. Wallace
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Popcorn lung, or popcorn workers' lung, is officially known as bronchiolitis obliterans. It may also be referred to as constrictive bronchiolitis. It is a rare fixed obstructive lung disease where granulation tissue, or scar tissue, gradually obstructs the bronchioles, or airways. Although there are several other causes of bronchiolitis obliterans, it got its more common name because it can be caused by the repeated inhalation of diacetyl, which is used to flavor butter popcorn.

Bronchiolitis obliterans is indicated by a significantly reduced lung capacity, shortness of breath, wheezing and a dry cough. These symptoms are often misdiagnosed as asthma or pneumonia. It is caused by inhalation of toxic fumes, as well as viral infection, transplant rejection, and collagen vascular disease. In its advanced stages, it is not reversible and is only treatable by a lung transplant.

Although diacetyl is a chemical, it is a naturally occurring one that is found in butter, cheese and wine. It gives popcorn that “natural” butter taste that so many people love. Unfortunately, this seemingly harmless ingredient has caused serious illness in several popcorn factory workers, and in 2007, at least one consumer. The first documented cases occurred in Jasper, Missouri, in 2000 at the Gilster-Mary Lee plant where eight workers were diagnosed with popcorn lung. These workers had been exposed to diacetyl for an extended period of time while they were testing bags of microwave popcorn.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted a study of 117 popcorn factory workers and found that they suffered higher rates of airway obstruction, chronic cough, shortness of breath, throat irritation, tightness in the chest and wheezing than what is found normally in the general population. Because diacetyl is a Food and Drug Administration-approved chemical for use as a flavoring, there were few precautions in place to protect workers from adverse effects. Since 2000, however, NIOSH has advised for implementation of safety measures for handling diacetyl in order to prevent future lung damage.

Although the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association has assured consumers that there is virtually no risk of developing popcorn lung from eating buttered popcorn, it has been recommended that manufacturers reduce the use of this chemical, mostly to protect plant workers. In 2007, ConAgra, the largest US popcorn manufacturer of brands such as Act II and Orville Redenbacher, joined the Weaver Popcorn Company in replacing the flavoring.

Since then, 19 factory workers have sued International Flavoring & Fragrances, which is the second biggest flavor manufacturer in the world, and won. In 2004, four of the workers were awarded $53 million US Dollars (USD) in settlements.

Although consumers have been assured that the flavoring is safe for consumption, one consumer has developed popcorn lung due to his above average consumption of microwave popcorn. Over a ten year period, he ate two bags of buttered popcorn every night, inhaling the bags as they came out hot from the microwave.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon993783 — On Dec 14, 2015

This stuff is in the flavoring for the vapors, and unicorn spit is the really bad one, and sadly one of todays' most popular for the kids.

By anon297763 — On Oct 17, 2012

Its so disturbing to find out something so seemingly innocent as yummy, buttery popcorn can be so lethal to your health, and especially to the vital organs you need to breathe! I've always thought there was something weird about the way the butter from the popcorn sticks to the inside of the bag, and the buttery perma-coating it leaves on your tongue.

By anon297656 — On Oct 16, 2012

The article refers to workers at popcorn factories, but what happens to workers who daily prepare popcorn to sell it to the people at the movie theaters, etc.? Certainly they are exposed to the fumes of diacetyl (or substitutes) when they make the popcorn and during all the time that they are in their work site. What kind of protection against the illness can they obtain? Must they use masks? What will be the reaction of the public if they use it?

By anon297640 — On Oct 16, 2012

I am confused from reading this article. You can get this from just eating microwave popcorn?

By Fiorite — On Jun 22, 2010

Research shows that diacetyl substitutes are just as dangerous as diacetyl, if not worse. NIOSH scientists have been conducting toxicology test on the most popular substitute for diacetyl and they have found that it can cause the same damage to the lungs. The chemical structure between the original chemical and its substitute are so similar that the effects on the body are no different. Furthermore, the long-term effects of diacetyl substitutes might be worse because there are no studies on the effects of prolonged exposure to diacetyl substitutes.

The appropriate course of action might be to regulate the amount of diacetyl or substitutes in popcorn, and establish safe handling standards for the chemical.

By PelesTears — On Jun 22, 2010

What a crazy ailment! I just read about a woman from Queens, New York who is suing Con Agra Foods because she contracted popcorn lung. Much like the man in this article, the woman from queens ate two bags of microwave popcorn a day for 16 years.

The woman's claim against Con Agra states that she will need a lung implant to rid herself of this incurable disease. The woman carries an oxygen tank wherever she goes, and has to work a sedentary job. It is too bad that this has happened to these consumers, but I do believe that anything in excess is bad for your health; especially processed food.

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