We have all heard the term “popcorn lung,” but most don’t really know what it is or how it is caused. Popcorn lung, or more properly, bronchiolitis obliterans, is a lung condition that can be caused in a number of different ways, including e-cigarette use.

Popcorn lung gets its name from a chemical called diacetyl, used to flavor microwave popcorn. It is in the buttery flavor in microwave popcorn. Workers in microwave popcorn processing plants were among the first to develop popcorn lung from breathing it in. The chemical is safe to eat, but not to breathe in. As a result, safety protocols have been established to prevent factory workers from breathing the chemical in.

Popcorn Lung: What it is and What it Does

Popcorn lung is a condition of the bronchi. The bronchi are contained in the lungs and branch off into ever smaller “branches.”  The smallest of these branches are called bronchioles. The bronchioles lead to small sacs called the alveoli. The alveoli’s job is to pick up oxygen that can then be carried to the rest of the body.

In popcorn lung, the smallest of these passages become irritated and scarred. The passages become narrower and constricted. This makes it harder for the body to get oxygen.  The condition causes coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. These are similar symptoms to those suffering from COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).

As the condition progresses, the alveoli continue to deteriorate. Getting enough oxygen becomes more and more difficult. The condition is serious and irreversible.

Vaping, E-Cigarettes, and Popcorn Lung

The chemical, diacetyl, can also be found in some flavored  e-cigarettes. Diacetyl is used in the flavorings used in e-cigarettes.

In a 2015 study, Harvard researchers found the chemical present in more than 75% of the samples flavored e-cigarettes tested. Many of these brands were especially embraced by young people. Teens, whose bodies are still developing, are at risk for the condition.

Some e-cigarette brands have now switched to diacetyl-free products. It is wise to check labels carefully when purchasing.

If you’ve suffered popcorn lung after using an e-cigarette, consider your legal options. You may have the right to file a product liability lawsuit against the manufacturer if the product contained diacetyl or lacked necessary warnings.

Other Causes of Popcorn Lung

There are other known chemical causes of popcorn lung. One chemical found in marijuana and some e-cigarettes, acetaldehyde, is also known to cause popcorn lung. Other chemicals which cause the condition include but are not limited to, formaldehyde, ammonia, chlorine, and hydrochloric acid. If at all possible, it is a good idea to stay away from these chemicals. Finally, the condition can result from a bout of pneumonia or bronchitis.

Professions at Risk for Popcorn Lung

Certain professions have high exposure to chemicals which have been linked to popcorn lung. 

Hairdressers who use chemical hair straightening products which contain formaldehyde, are at risk. Workers who work with the flavoring, diacetyl, in food products such as in frostings, syrups, margarines, and potato chips are also at increased risk.

Additionally, the condition has been found among workers at coffee roasting plants, candy factories, and animal feed plants. These workers all require equipment that will prevent inhalation of these chemicals.

If you’ve been diagnosed with popcorn lung due to exposure in the workplace, contact an attorney. You may qualify for workers’ compensation benefits and/or damages through a third party claim.

Treatments for Popcorn Lung

There is no cure for popcorn lung at present. But there are treatments. Treatments can reduce symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. 

Bronchodilators such as those used for asthmatics and COPD patients are a first line of defense. These open the airwaves temporarily, making it easier to breathe. 

Cough suppressants can temporarily reduce the dry cough that often accompanies popcorn lung. As the disease progresses oxygen supplementation can be helpful.

As the condition causes serious breathing problems, those with advanced popcorn lung may look toward a lung transplant. However, a lung transplant can also result in popcorn lung if the body rejects the new tissue. The condition can be fatal.

Popcorn Lung Lawsuits

Once diagnosed, it is important to take steps to mitigate symptoms. It is important to work directly with a pulmonologist experienced in treating the disease and to follow their instructions regarding care. Once diagnosed, many are unable to work and face increasing medical bills.

The next step is to work with an attorney who is experienced in both toxic torts and popcorn lung lawsuits. Juries are often sympathetic, and awards are useful to help pay for increased medical bills and loss of earnings. These cases are often filed as toxic tort cases, a specialty within the general area of personal injury. They must be carefully investigated, and often expert testimony is needed in order to prevail.