What Is Popcorn Lung?

Vape Pen Battery Before Explosion

Popcorn lung, or bronchiolitis obliterans1, is a serious medical condition that has been connected to flavored e-cigarettes containing the chemical diacetyl. It occurs when the smallest bronchioles, which absorb air, become irritated and inflamed. This lung disease thickens and narrows the airways. It impedes breathing and can lead to severe complications and even death.

Here is what you should know about this condition explained by our Miami personal injury lawyers.

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Why Is It Called Popcorn Lung?

The name “popcorn lung” came about when eight former employees of a Missouri popcorn factory began suffering from bronchiolitis obliterans. The workers breathed the chemical diacetyl during the production process.

The chemical diacetyl was used to create a butter flavor at the popcorn plant. For these workers, exposure to diacetyl may have caused serious illness and even death. In turn, bronchiolitis obliterans was given the common name popcorn lung.

What Causes Popcorn Lung?

The condition known as popcorn lung is caused by breathing in diacetyl. Diacetyl is a common byproduct of fermentation, and the production of some dairy products can create the substance. The distinct taste of butter, some creams, and buttermilk is the result of diacetyl. Because of its buttery flavor, artificial butter products may use diacetyl. It’s a key ingredient in many imitation dairy products, including many types of dairy-free spreads and margarine.

Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers diacetyl generally safe to consume2, it can inflame the smallest bronchioles in the lungs when inhaled. Victims often present with a decline in lung function. In addition to exposure to diacetyl, other causes of popcorn lung3 may include additional prolonged chemical exposure, including:

  • Ammonia
  • Chlorine
  • Nitrogen Oxides
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Metal oxide fumes
  • Formaldehyde
  • Hydrochloric acid
  • Mustard gas (sulfur mustard)

In addition, it can develop as a side effect of rheumatoid arthritis and is a common complication for individuals who receive lung transplants.

Does Vaping Cause Popcorn Lung?

man smoking an e-cigarette

Do vape pens cause popcorn lung? Diacetyl is a common ingredient in some e-cigarettes. People exposed to liquids used in vaping, either through inhaling the products or through occupational exposure, are at risk of contracting popcorn lung.

Vaping covers the lungs with the vaporized e-cigarette liquid when inhaled, which may include diacetyl, a substance known to cause popcorn lung.

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What Are the Symptoms of Popcorn Lung?

What does popcorn lung feel like? The effects of popcorn lung can look similar to those of asthma or a cold. However, they won’t have the other symptoms associated with those illnesses. Popcorn lung symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Chest pain
  • Discomfort
  • Labored breathing
  • Exhaustion

Popcorn lung is a respiratory disease. It feels like having trouble breathing and possibly having a dry cough. The lungs don’t work as well as they should, which may be especially apparent while exercising. It may feel similar to other respiratory diseases and problems but not show improvement.

What Happens When You Get Popcorn Lung?

When you get popcorn lung, the smallest tubes in the lungs become inflamed. These tubes usually serve the purpose of transporting oxygen to the body and expelling air from the lungs.

The inflamed and scarred tissue does not transport air between the lungs and the body as well as it should. Those affected can manage symptoms, but the scars are irreversible. Over time, it can progress to further health issues that could lead to fatal complications.

How Long Does It Take To Get Popcorn Lung?

Popcorn lung can appear after relatively little exposure to the chemicals that cause it. Symptoms may occur in as little as two weeks after exposure. Although not unprecedented4, it’s extremely uncommon to get popcorn lung from consuming microwave popcorn.

Is There Treatment for Popcorn Lung?

Older man have difficulty breathing at the gym

Popcorn lung is irreversible. Once the tissues are damaged, they cannot heal or repair. However, there are things that you can do to lessen the symptoms you experience.

Supplemental oxygen may provide relief. In addition, patients should receive pneumonia and influenza vaccines to limit the risk of other illnesses that can cause related damage. Breathing treatments can also relax the airways. Speak to your doctor about antibiotics and steroids, which may provide additional relief.

Can Popcorn Lung Kill You?

Unfortunately, popcorn lung is not reversible and can be fatal if left untreated5. It can progress, and further complications may develop. In some cases, popcorn lung can lead to death.

How Can Popcorn Lung Be Prevented?

The best way to prevent popcorn lung is to avoid breathing diacetyl. A person should avoid working with the substance or prolonged exposure to it. If they must use diacetyl, the appropriate protective equipment should always be implemented. In addition, avoid vaping and any products that cause inhalation of diacetyl.

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What Can a Person Do If They Develop Popcorn Lung?

If you have been exposed to diacetyl and are diagnosed with popcorn lung, you should work with medical professionals to develop the best treatment plan. In addition, there are things that you can do from a legal perspective. You may be able to file a claim through workers’ compensation or pursue a personal injury claim.

The first step is determining how you were exposed to the harmful chemical diacetyl. It is not the only cause of popcorn lung, but if you have been exposed to any chemical that causes popcorn lung, it’s crucial to your case. If you contracted popcorn lung because of a dangerous chemical, you must determine where you encountered the substance.

1. Work-Related Exposure

If your job exposed you to the chemical, you may bring a claim through workers’ compensation. The workers’ comp program recognizes occupational disease and injuries from sudden accidents. Our workers’ compensation lawyers can help you gather evidence that your disease is the result of occupational exposure.

2. Hazardous or Defective Product Exposure

If your exposure to diacetyl occurred from using a product, it may be possible to claim compensation through product liability litigation. A product can be defective if it contains harmful substances that cause illness and disease.

Our lawyers can help you gather the evidence to prove the cause of your illness and the link to the dangerous product. We can investigate your condition, the link to the use of the product, and the damages you have suffered.

Attorneys for Popcorn Lung Claims

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Have you been affected by popcorn lung? We can help. Contact our attorneys at Bernstein & Maryanoff today to see if you have a case and what your claim may be worth. We’re ready to help you fight for justice and get the compensation you deserve.


1American Lung Association. (6 July 2016). Popcorn Lung: A Dangerous Risk of Flavored E-Cigarettes. Retrieved 4 April 2022.
2U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (6 January 2022). CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. Retrieved 4 April 2022.
3Pichardo, G. (17 April 2021). What Is Popcorn Lung? WebMD. Retrieved 4 April 2022.
4Fulton, A. (20 September 2012). Man Wins $7 Million In Suit Claiming Microwave Popcorn Caused Lung Disease. NPR. Retrieved 4 April 2022.
5Healthline. (3 November 2021). Everything You Need to Know About Popcorn Lung. Retrieved 4 April 2022.

About the Author

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Jack G. Bernstein, ESQ.

Jack Bernstein is a hard working and highly motivated personal injury attorney in Miami, Florida with over three decades of experience. He is a strategist and idea person, with a genuine passion for helping his firm’s clients. If you've been injured, contact Jack Bernstein today for a free evaluation of your case.

The information contained herein is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Seek competent legal counsel for advice on any legal matter.