Exposure to the chemical known as diacetyl, which adds the buttery flavor to popcorn, has been tied to hundreds of cases of workers whose lungs have been damaged or destroyed. When it is heated diacetyl becomes a vapor and when it is inhaled over a long period of time, it can cause various problematic symptoms. Exposure to this chemical can cause one to experience difficulty breathing and exhaling, and one’s lungs can become scarred. The severe form of the disease is called “bronchiolitis obliterans,” also known as “popcorn workers’ lung,” which can be lethal.
In fact, in July of 2005, a jury awarded a worker 2.7 million dollars as a result of his development of bronchiolitis obliterans, due to his long term exposure to diacetyl. There is currently a growing concern over the safety of butter flavored microwave popcorn not only on those working in the industry but also on the every day consumer who is munching on this delectable treat. In fact, a 53-year-old Colorado man may have developed a grave lung condition due to the same. His symptoms at first puzzled doctors inasmuch as he was a nonsmoker with no other high-risk factors for lung problems, yet he had difficulty breathing. At first he was diagnosed with hypersensitivity pneumonitis, an inflammation of the lungs that is usually caused by chronic exposure to bacteria, mold or dust; however, inasmuch as there was nothing in the patient’s history to suggest he was breathing in excessive amounts of any of these substances, thsi diagnosis needed to be questioned.
A doctor known as Dr. Rose likened the man’s lung symptoms to workers with “popcorn workers’ lung.” Interestingly enough when the man was asked whether he was around popcorn a lot, he stated that he loved this snack and has been eating this twice a day for ten years. He also stated that he would often open the bag and inhale, as he loved the smell of buttery microwave popcorn. When the doctor measured levels of diacetyl in his home after he made popcorn, she found levels of the chemical similar to those found in microwave popcorn plants.
After not eating popcorn for a few months, this man claims that he is feeling a lot better and is finding it easier to breathe comfortably. As a result of these concerns, popcorn companies, including Pop Weaver, have either already removed diacetyl from their popcorn bags, or claim that they will do so shortly. However, many feel that the government is not getting involved enough in investigating this chemical. For instance, the FDA has labeled diacetyl safe for consumption and it is also alarming that labels for most products that contain this chemical call it a “flavoring” and rarely mention it by name as an ingredient.
In New York, the Appellate Division, First Department recently dealt with issues concerning the insurance law as applied to the “popcorn lung” suits. International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc. v. Royal Insurance Company of America, et. al., — N.Y.S.2d —-, 2007 WL 3146945, 2007 N.Y. Slip Op. 08122 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept.,2007). The issue before the court was whether there is a separate deductible for each worker sustaining injuries by the toxic chemical found in popcorn, or whether there is one deductible for all the workers working at the same employment plant injured by the diacetyl. The court found for the insurance companies and held that each personal injury lawsuit is a separate “occurrence,” and thereby, there is a separate deductible for each injured worker.