We are seeing patients with a diagnosis of “popcorn lung.” What is it and what causes it? — Name withheld on request

Popcorn lung is actually bronchiolitis obliterans, which is scarring of the smallest air sacs of the lung. It is a serious lung disease that causes coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath, similar to COPD. The disease was first noted more than a decade ago in factory workers where microwave popcorn — thus the name — was manufactured. The workers were breathing in diacetyl, among other contaminants. Diacetyl is a chemical used to create buttery flavor in foods such as popcorn and caramel.

More recently, popcorn lung is being diagnosed in people who use flavored e-cigarettes.  Some e-cigarette companies are using diacetyl to enhance flavorings of vanilla, maple, coconut, and others. Although diacetyl was removed from microwave popcorn and other food items, its current use results in direct exposure to the lungs through inhalation.

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