The only known consumer to have developed the health condition known as “popcorn lung” is suing the stores that sold him his microwave popcorn, saying that they failed to warn him that he could become ill from using the product as intended.
Wayne Watson of Centennial, Colorado was diagnosed with a rare lung disease known as bronchiolitis obliterans, or popcorn lung. The disease is most common among workers in microwave popcorn factories, who are regularly exposed to the flavoring chemical diacetyl.
Diacetyl, a naturally occurring compound that gives butter its flavor, is known to damage the lungs when inhaled. After popcorn lung and diacetyl were linked, popcorn manufacturers instituted new safety measures to isolate workers from the chemical’s fumes. But no safety measures for consumers were put in place.
Upon learning that Watson regularly consumed two bags of microwave popcorn per day, researchers at National Jewish Hospital tested the air inside his home for diacetyl. While factory workers have been known to develop popcorn lung from exposure to between 0.75 and 4 parts per million (ppm) of diacetyl, the concentration of the chemical in Watson’s kitchen varied between 0.5 and 3 ppm.
After news of Watson’s case emerged, the four largest microwave popcorn makers in the United States announced that they were phasing out nearly all use of diacetyl in their products.
While many lawsuits have been filed in the past by workers against popcorn manufacturers for the damaging effects of diacetyl, Watson instead has chosen to sue the stores that sold him the popcorn. Named in the lawsuit are grocery chain The Kroger Company; Dillon Companies Inc., parent of grocery store King Soopers; and food distributor Inter-American Products Inc.
These companies “failed to warn that preparing microwave popcorn in a microwave oven as intended and smelling the buttery aroma could expose the consumer to an inhalation hazard and a risk of lung injury,” the lawsuit says.