Understanding Popcorn Lung: Why It Happens and What You Can Do if You Get Sick

Popcorn lung is a serious and irreversible condition of the lungs and bronchi. Its technical name is bronchiolitis obliterans. The condition causes inflammation and scarring of the bronchi and small airway sacs called the alveoli. The condition is progressive and has no cure.

Popcorn lung can be contracted in a number of ways, from working with chemicals that cause it, to vaping and using e-cigarettes that contain chemicals that cause it, to contracting respiratory illnesses that can cause the disease.

Diacetyl: The Chemical That Causes Popcorn Lung

The chemical diacetyl can cause the condition. This chemical is a flavoring ingredient in microwave popcorn. It provides a butter flavor to popcorn, frostings, crackers, and cookies. Although the condition was first noticed among microwave popcorn plant workers, workers in many food processing plants have been exposed to the chemical and developed the condition as a result.

The chemical is released in the air during processing, making the air hazardous. As a result, safety protocols must be put in place to protect workers as long as the chemical is in use. The product is safe to eat. But breathing in the chemical can cause irreversible lung damage. Some manufacturers have stopped using the chemical altogether.

Other Causes of Popcorn Lung

There are other chemicals and products that can cause the condition. Diacetyl has been used in the flavorings used in the “e-juice” for e-cigarettes and certain vaping products. It was originally thought that vaping was a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes. Teens and young adults flocked to vaping.

Other chemicals that can cause popcorn lung include:

  • Formaldehyde
  • Ammonia, chlorine, and
  • Hydrochloric acid.

Some of these chemicals are used routinely in processing plants and other places of employment. Some workers are routinely exposed to these chemicals. Hairdressers use chemical hair straightening products that contain formaldehyde. 

Surprisingly, some of these chemicals are also used in coffee roasting plants, candy factories, and animal feed plants. If these chemicals are being used workers need to take precautions to prevent inhalation of these chemicals.

Vaping, E-Cigarettes, and Popcorn Lung

Diacetyl can also be found in some flavored  e-cigarettes and in vaping “e-juices.”   The chemical enhances the flavors used. As late as 2015, diacetyl was found in some 75% of the samples tested. There has been some movement away from using diacetyl but check the labels carefully. The chemical is still being used and teens may not be aware of it.  

The FDA will not be taking any action to review these products until at least 2022. In the meantime, continued use of these products can cause serious damage to users.

What Popcorn Lung Does to the Lungs

The Latin name for the condition says it all: bronchiolitis obliterans. The condition is an obliteration of the bronchi. Bronchi are the main passageways into the lungs. The bronchi become smaller as they travel further into the lungs. The smallest bronchi are called bronchioles. Bronchioles end in small sacs known as “alveoli.” This is where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide occurs.

The bronchioles and alveoli become inflamed and scarred when you suffer from popcorn lung. This causes the passageways to become more narrow, which makes it harder for the body to get enough oxygen.

As this process continues, it becomes more difficult for the body to get oxygen. If popcorn lung is not treated, the alveoli can continue to deteriorate until death.

 A person suffering from popcorn lung might exhibit symptoms such as:

  •  A dry cough
  •  Flu-like fever
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Asthma-like wheezing and fatigue.

Popcorn lung is sometimes misdiagnosed as asthma or bronchitis. A CT scan or X-ray may be needed to accurately diagnose the condition.

How to Treat Popcorn Lung

It is important to be accurately diagnosed if you have the condition and to get treatment early. The disease is progressive and early treatment can help slow the progression down. Treatments include using bronchodilators to help open the airways. These are the same kinds of dilators that asthmatics and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients use. Some popcorn lung patients find that immunosuppressants can help. Immunosuppressants suppress the body’s natural reaction to the chemical. With the immune response decreased, patients may breathe better. As the disease progresses, patients find that oxygen supplementation can be helpful.

As the condition of the lungs continues to deteriorate, some patients begin to look toward a lung transplant. However, lung transplants sometimes cause popcorn lungs. The body begins to reject the new tissue and popcorn lung may result. The condition can be fatal.

Once you have obtained medical treatment, it is important to get legal help as well. Often, patients who suffer from this condition experience life-long restrictions regarding physical activity. They may lose earnings and have increased medical bills. 

Legal help is available. Often, these cases are filed as toxic torts, product liability, or workplace accident claims. These cases can be complex and often need expert witness testimony regarding causation and debilitation. If you seek legal help, you want to make sure and work with a personal injury attorney who has experience handling cases like yours.