Popcorn lung is easier to remember and say that bronchiolitis obliterans, which is why it is the nickname for the disease. Even though the nickname might sound a little funny, nothing is amusing about bronchiolitis obliterans.

What Causes Bronchiolitis Obliterans?

There are many causes of popcorn lung or bronchiolitis obliterans. Bronchioles are the tiniest airways in our lungs. Popcorn lung is an inflammatory condition of the bronchioles in the lungs.

Bronchiolitis obliterans occurs when these tiny airways become inflamed because of damage caused by respiratory infections or chemicals that we breathe. The damage leads to scarring that blocks the airways. The blockages prevent oxygen from passing through the lungs, which can lead to oxygen deprivation throughout the body.

The symptoms of bronchiolitis obliterans include:

  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue 
  • Dry coughs

Some individuals report other symptoms of popcorn lung. These symptoms range from flu-like symptoms to night sweats and weight loss. In some cases, a person may also develop inflammation of the throat, nose, and ears from long-term exposure to the chemical associated with popcorn lung.

What is the Disease Called Popcorn Lung?

In 2000, numerous workers in a microwave popcorn factory developed bronchiolitis obliterans. After analyzing the outbreak, researchers determined that the workers had developed the condition from inhaling the microwave popcorn flavoring. The nickname Popcorn Lung originated from this outbreak.

After conducting more research, researchers discovered that even short-term exposure to the chemical Diacetyl could result in bronchiolitis obliterans. That was the chemical used in the butter flavoring for the microwave popcorn.

However, microwave popcorn is not the only item that uses Diacetyl for flavoring. The chemical is also used in the flavorings for e-cigarettes

Further studies have linked other flavoring ingredients to respiratory risks in workplace settings. NIOSH issued an alert in December 2003 warning workers and employers that breathing certain flavoring chemicals in the workplace could lead to severe lung disease

Other chemicals that can lead to popcorn lung or other respiratory problems include, but may not be limited to:

  • Chlorine
  • Ammonia
  • Welding byproducts (Welder’s Disease)
  • Formaldehyde
  • Nitrous oxide
  • Sulfur dioxide 
  • Hydrochloric acid
  • Mustard gas

Infections and other conditions can lead to bronchiolitis obliterans, such as rheumatoid arthritis and complications from lung transplants.

How is Popcorn Lung Diagnosed and Treated?

Physicians evaluate the symptoms reported by the patient. If the symptoms are consistent with popcorn lung and the patient has a risk factor, the doctors can order a variety of tests to determine if the cause of the symptoms is bronchiolitis obliterans.

CT scans and chest x-rays can help reveal scarring and damage to the airways in the lungs. Doctors may also perform a lung tissue biopsy and lung volume tests to help diagnose popcorn lung.

Once a person develops bronchiolitis obliterans, there is no cure. There are treatments that a doctor may prescribe to relieve symptoms and slow down the progression of the disease, but they cannot stop the condition from becoming worse. 

Some of the medications that doctors may prescribe to treat popcorn lung include:

  • Oxygen therapy
  • Corticosteroids
  • Cough suppressants
  • Antibiotics
  • Immunosuppressive drugs

Popcorn lung can eventually result in death. A lung transplant may be ordered in severe cases, but it can be difficult to find a match. There may be complications with the transplant that can result in the death of the patient. 

Suing Employers for Popcorn Lung

Employers are required to take measures to prevent injuries and illnesses associated with workplace conditions. If employers do not take adequate measures to protect workers from exposure to dangerous chemicals, the employers could be held liable for the injuries, damages, and losses caused by bronchiolitis obliterans and other workplace diseases. 

Workers who develop popcorn lung or other illnesses may receive compensation by filing a lawsuit against their employer. Employees are generally barred from suing employers for workplace injuries and illnesses by workers’ compensation laws. 

However, if the employers committed intentional wrongdoing or were grossly negligent in exposing workers to dangerous chemicals and conditions, the workers may have the right to sue their employers.

Examples of negligence by employers that could result in a personal injury lawsuit include, but may not be limited to:

  • Failing to warn their employees about the risks and dangers of working with certain chemicals
  • Failing to warn of the dangers of inhaling vapors while working with chemicals, such as flavorings 
  • Violation of federal and state laws and regulations for the use of chemicals
  • Failing to provide protective gear and safety equipment
  • Failing to install ventilators and taking other measures to ensure adequate ventilation throughout the facility
  • Failing to monitor air quality and the concentration of chemical vapors within a facility

If you developed popcorn lung or other illness associated with your employment, talk to a workplace injury attorney. You may have options for recovering compensation for your illness in addition to filing a workers’ compensation claim.