You might have heard the news that a Colorado man was awarded $7.2 million in damages for lung problems purportedly caused by years of inhaling the aroma of microwave popcorn. Wayne Watson said he ate two bags of the popcorn every day for 10 years until his diagnosis of “popcorn lung.”
That’s a recognized respiratory disease—also known by its medical name bronchiolitis obliterans—which causes scarring in the lungs and breathing difficulties and could be fatal if severe enough. The disease occurs from inhaling large quantities of a chemical in popcorn, called diacetyl, and was first recognized in popcorn factory workers years ago.
Watson was the first, and possibly only, popcorn eater to come down with popcorn lung.
So should you try to avoid microwave popcorn?
Probably not over concerns over diacetyl since the biggest popcorn manufacturers banned the chemical nearly five years ago after lawsuits were filed against them by their factory workers. Orville Redenbacher, Act II, Pop Secret, and Jolly Time microwave popcorn no longer contain diacetyl.
But some experts have raised concerns over other chemicals used to coat microwave bags that keep oil from soaking through and make the bags more fire resistant. These chemicals break down when heated into perfluorooctinoic acid, or PFOA, and have been labeled a “likely carcinogen” by the US Environmental Protection Agency, though studies are lacking in humans to verify the cancer risk.
Bottom line: Microwave popcorn probably poses little risk in moderation, but if you eat a bag or two a day like Watson did, you may want to switch to an air popper machine and flavor your popcorn with a little garlic powder, grated Parmesan cheese, and cayenne pepper.