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Popcorn Lung: What Is It And What Should You Do About It?

Is it safe to eat microwave popcorn?  In case you missed it, a surprising new case of diacetyl lung damage
(so-called popcorn lung) was discovered in a patient who is a popcorn fanatic.
He reported eating 2 bags of artificial butter flavored popcorn per day
for years on end and began to notice shortness of breath.

My bottom line: avoid diacetyl, don’t avoid popcorn.  Popcorn itself is
not harmful or dangerous (unless you’re under age 5 and are at risk of
choking or inhaling it) – just make sure it’s not laced with chemicals.

Five years ago the New England Journal of Medicine published a study linking a popcorn chemical (diacetyl) to a serious lung condition in 8 popcorn factory workers.
The lung condition, also known as bronchiolitis obliterans, is an
inflammatory reaction to diacetyl that can reduce lung capacity by as
much as 80%.  Certain people who inhale too much of the chemical form
scar tissue as a reaction, making the lungs stiff and causing cough and
shortness of breath.

In this week’s case, the astute pulmonologist examining the popcorn addict remembered the 2002 NEJM article, and thought to ask him about popcorn exposure as part of her work up for his breathing complaints.  As it turns out, his exposure to popcorn chemicals is the likely cause of his lung damage.  Sadly, though, once the scarring occurs there is no way to return the lungs to their original state of heath.  The only known treatment for popcorn lung is a lung transplant.

There has been incredible interest in this story because microwave popcorn is a part of most of our lives.  The United States is the single largest consumer of popcorn worldwide, and we purchase over 1 billion pounds of unpopped corn per year.  We naturally wonder: could this happen to me?  Am I (or my kids) at risk?

First of all, I think that diacetyl should be avoided by all consumers of popcorn.  ConAgra, the parent company for Orville Redenbacher and Act II, has agreed to immediately remove this chemical from its artificial butter flavored popcorn.  Nonetheless, we should scrutinize the labels of any popcorn that we intend to purchase to make sure that it doesn’t contain diacetyl.

Second, the good news is that not everyone’s body forms scar tissue in reaction to this chemical.  In the same way that we’re not all allergic to the same environmental agents, our bodies are not all going to respond to diacetyl by developing lung scarring.  That said, why tempt fate by inhaling fumes that have harmed a small number of people?

Third, it does seem that it requires prolonged and high exposure to diacetyl to be at risk for popcorn lung.  So if you’re not a buttered popcorn maniac (consuming several bags per day for years on end) your risk is extremely small, even if in the past you’ve eaten the occasional microwave popcorn containing the chemical.

If you are looking for alternative healthy snack options check out this link.

Hope this post allows some of you to breathe easier!This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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5 Responses to “Popcorn Lung: What Is It And What Should You Do About It?”

  1. EdisonLite says:

    Dr. Val, I have several boxes of Act II butter flavored microwave popcorn, too, that I bought before this info came out. Is it OK to eat what I have left?

  2. EdisonLite says:

    Dr. Val, I have several boxes of Act II butter flavored microwave popcorn, too, that I bought before this info came out. Is it OK to eat what I have left?

  3. ValJonesMD says:

    Dear EdisonLite,

    The risk is cumulative – and one serving probably won’t have a measurable effect, but just to be safe, I’d probably throw it out.  If you’re concerned, please check with your doctor. 

  4. rcc1 says:

    What about poeple work at theaters where they are often popping popcorn in large quantites?  Would they be at risk or at higher risk that the average person?

  5. ValJonesMD says:

    Dear Rcc1,

    I would ask your company’s corporate headquarters if their popcorn (or butter flavor) products have diacetyl in them. If the answer is yes, you could be at higher risk for “popcorn lung.” So please look into it.

    All best,

    Dr. Val

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