What is 'popcorn lung' and how dangerous is the movie snack?

A US COURT has awarded a man $7.2m in damages after he developed a chronic condition known as 'popcorn lung' – but what exactly is it and should we be avoiding the popular movie snack?

WHAT IS ‘POPCORN LUNG’? The condition's medical name is 'bronchiolitis obliterans'. It is an inflammatory obstruction of the lung's tiniest airways called bronchioles. The inflammation makes it difficult for air to flow out of the lungs and causes a dry cough, shortness of breath and wheezing. It is irreversible. One cause of bronchiolitis obliterans is believed to be the inhalation of airborne ‘diacetyl’, a chemical used to make butter-like flavouring in microwaveable popcorn – giving rise to the term 'popcorn lung'.

WHAT HAPPENED TO WAYNE WATSON? Popcorn addict Wayne Watson, a 59-year-old from Denver, Colorado claimed to have developed 'popcorn lung' after years of exposure to diacetyl in his favourite snack. Watson said that the popcorn manufacturer and the supermarket chain that sold it were negligent because they failed to warn on labels that diacetyl was dangerous. Jurors in the US federal court agreed with him and awarded him $7.2m. Labelling firm Gilster-Mary Lee Corp was found liable for 80 per cent of the damages, while supermarket chain King Soopers and its parent firm Kroger Co had to pay 20 per cent. However, the defendants claim Watson’s health problems are the result of his use of dangerous chemicals working as a carpet cleaner and intend to appeal the decision.

IS POPCORN REALLY DANGEROUS? Over the last 15 years, a number of popcorn lung sufferers have needed lung transplants to survive and a small handful of people have died. In 2007, four of America's biggest microwave popcorn manufacturers removed diacetyl from nearly all of their products and several smaller companies followed suit. However, government health investigators reported afterwards that some of the substitutes were at least as toxic as the chemical they replaced.

But it is worth noting that the vast majority of popcorn lung sufferers have been people who worked in popcorn plants where they inhaled large amounts of the diacetyl fumes. Other cases have involved serious popcorn addicts, such as Watson who claimed to eat three bags of the snack a day – a small comfort for those who enjoy the snack on a more occasional basis. · 

More on What is 'popcorn lung' and how dangerous is the movie snack?