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The Rich, Buttery Scent of ... Diacetyl?

Sept. 21, 2012
A Colorado man suffering from popcorn lung disease was recently awarded $7.2 million following a federal court case. But he didn’t work in a popcorn plant like others who have won similar lawsuits in the past; he simply ate microwave popcorn daily.
Last month, after we published a news item about research linking occupational exposure to diacetyl — the flavoring agent that gives microwave popcorn its buttery taste and aroma — to Alzheimer's disease, a concerned reader contacted me to ask whether the potential health risks extend to anyone who enjoys an occasional bag of microwave popcorn.

Diacetyl exposure among microwave popcorn plant workers has been blamed for causing bronchiolitis obliterans, or "popcorn lung," a severe, chronic lung disease. I explained to our reader that research into diacetyl's health risks largely revolve around these plant workers rather than consumers who microwave a bag of popcorn for a Friday night movie. In fact, OSHA and NIOSH had this to say on the matter: “Consumers are not believed to be at risk from preparing or eating microwave popcorn products.”

Now, however, after a jury awarded $7.2 million to a Colorado man who apparently developed the lung disease not by working around diacetyl but by eating microwave popcorn daily, perhaps this will change.

This is the first ruling of its kind for a consumer of popcorn rather than a plant worker. According to media reports, Wayne Watson consumed about two or three bags of microwave popcorn every day and now suffers lung damage. His attorney argued that inhaling the artificial butter smell (and, therefore, the chemical diacetyl) caused his illness, and that microwave popcorn products should be outfitted with warnings so consumers know the risks.

Obviously, Watson ate a lot more microwave popcorn than the average person. And Gilster-Mary Lee Corp., which was named responsible for paying the bulk of the damages, pointed out that "millions of consumers ... have safely used and enjoyed microwave popcorn since it was introduced." The defense also suggested that perhaps Watson's disease was caused by (non-diacetyl-related) occupational exposures.

But the fact is that a jury has awarded millions of dollars to a man believed to suffer a serious lung disease from a chemical in microwave popcorn. Will additional lawsuits follow? Just how much microwave popcorn poses a risk to someone's health? Will this $7.2 million decision prompt microwave popcorn manufacturers to consider making some changes?

I don't know the answers to all of these questions, but I can say that my popcorn air popper is looking pretty good right about now.

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