On Wednesday, after a nine-day trial, a U.S. federal court jury awarded Wayne Watson, a victim of "popcorn lung," $7.2 million in damages. The jury accepted Watson’s testimony that he had developed a rare lung disease as a result of toxic chemicals he ingested that were used to flavor the microwave popcorn he frequently ate. But although the disease was first described in 1835, long before microwave popcorn, most of the world had never before even heard of it.
The irreversible condition, formally known as bronchiolitis obliterans, is an obstruction of the bronchioles – the smallest airways in the lungs. According to National Jewish Health, a treatment and research center in Denver that specializes in respiratory illness, “The disease can be caused by breathing in irritant fumes, such as chlorine, ammonia, oxides of nitrogen or sulfur dioxide.”
Over the past 15 years or so, another chemical, diacetyl, which is used to add buttery flavor in food preparations like microwave popcorn, margarine and candy, has been tagged as the chief culprit in many cases of disease.
Diacetyl, which is produced naturally during fermentation and is found in foods like butter and cheese, can also be chemically synthesized and is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use as a flavoring.
In the late 1990s, workers at the Gilster-Mary Lee plant in the small town of Jasper, Mo., began getting sick. Most of them initially assumed it was simply due to asthma or, perhaps, the flu. But when the symptoms never went away, they decided to speak to an attorney.
In 2000, a lawyer representing eight of the workers contacted Dr. Allen Parmet, a public health physician in Kansas City. According to Parmet, within 20 minutes of reviewing their medical records, he diagnosed their condition as bronchiolitis obliterans, a devastating lung disease he had seen only three times in 25 years, reported the Associated Press.
Thirty factory workers eventually went forward with litigation against the plant, in a move that prompted people to start calling the condition “popcorn workers lung.” Eric Peoples, the first plaintiff to file a suit, was awarded $20 million in compensatory damages.
Since then, several manufacturers including ConAgra, which owns Act II and Orville Redenbacher, have replaced diacetyl. Gilster-Mary Lee, however, has continued to use the chemical. After the Watson verdict, the company issued a statement saying: "We are certainly very disappointed by the decision of the jury in this case in light of the very clear evidence which was presented, including the millions of consumers who have safely used and enjoyed microwave popcorn since it was introduced. We are currently evaluating our next steps in this matter and will assert all rights available to us under the law."