"Popcorn Lung" Symptoms and Causes

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In 2004, The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported several cases of bronchiolitis obliterans (BO) in workers in a microwave popcorn plant in Missouri in 2000. Bronchiolitis obliterans is a serious and irreversible condition in which the tiny air sacs in the lungs become scarred. After investigation by the NIOSH (National Institute of Occupation Safety and Health), it was discovered that a flavoring agent, diacetyl, was used to give the popcorn a buttery taste, and that inhalation of this flavoring likely contributed to the development of the illness. The disease that results often is associated with cough and shortness of breath, similar to that seen in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This process is irreversible by current therapy.

More recently, a legal case was settled in Colorado for over $7 million dollars. The award was granted to a consumer who developed bronchiolitis obliterans ("popcorn lung") after eating two bags of microwaved popcorn every day for 10 years. Since workers who manufacture microwaved popcorn were at risk, the judgment stated that the popcorn manufacturers and the supermarket corporations should have realized that consumers could be at risk of this lung disease too.

As mentioned previously, the symptoms of "popcorn lung" are primarily cough and shortness of breath. These symptoms can develop slowly and subtly, gradually progressing to more disabling symptoms over time. Some patients may complain of fevers, night sweats, and weight loss. Severe exposure as seen in microwave popcorn plant workers may include inflammation of the skin and mucosal surfaces (eyes, nose, and/or throat). In general, however, because the symptoms are so similar to tobacco-related COPD as well as asthma, the diagnosis may be difficult to make without a high level of suspicion.