If you didn’t know better, you’d probably thing “diacetyl” is a type of dinosaur. It’s not — it’s actually a colorless liquid which you have probably eaten before, perhaps even over the last few days. Diacetyl has an “intense buttery flavor,” per Wikipedia, and is often used in microwave popcorn. In small, bag-sized amounts, it’s probably harmless. (Probably.) But unfortunately, breathing in a lot of diacetyl is bad for you. It can cause something called “bronchiolitis obliterans,” a very rare, debilitating lung disease.
As CBS reported, in 2004, a jury awarded $20 million to a former worker at a Jasper, Missouri popcorn plant who contracted the disease. Apparently, because he was exposed to so much diacetyl during work hours, his lungs stopped functioning normally. And, per the same CBS story, the problem was widespread. Many other popcorn manufacturing plants were checked thereafter while popcorn plant workers had their lung functions tested. Some of the popcorn manufacturers changed their recipes while others took steps to protect their employees from the toxic fumes. But for many workers, it was too late. The disease had already taken root before these reforms were put into place, and naturally, other lawsuits followed.
Wayne Watson, a Colorado man, was one of those who sued. He took aim at the Gilster-Mary Lee Corporation, one the popcorn companies. But his lawsuit was different. First, he didn’t bring his suit until 2007, well after most factories took steps to limit their workers’ exposure to diacetyl. Second, and more importantly, Wayne Watson didn’t work for a popcorn maker.
He just ate a lot of popcorn.
Watson was active in his church’s choir and at some point, realized that he had trouble singing — he told Yahoo! Shine that he “couldn’t sustain [his] notes like [he] used to.” He went to the pulmonologist who asked him, curiously, if he was around a lot of popcorn often. As it turns out, Watson had a two or three bag a day habit, according to The Week. The habit lasted ten years, totaling nearly 10,000 bags of popcorn of that span. Each bag microwaved pushed a little bit of diacetyl into the air, and, Watson argued, that was enough to cause his respiratory ailments. He gave up the popcorn habit after the doctor’s discovery. And then he sued, arguing that the manufacturer should have outfitted the popcorn bags with a warning label, advising would-be eaters of the dangerous toxins within.
The defendants argued that Watson’s maladies were caused by years of working with carpet cleaning chemicals, but Watson’s experts suggested otherwise. They found elevated levels of diacetyl in his kitchen — The Week says “at factory levels” — and Watson apparently had a habit of taking in the aroma of each bag of popcorn, as part of the popcorn-eating experience. (Sources were silent as to how he did so without burning his fingers, or without the hot steam scalding his face.) And Watson prevailed. In late 2012, the jury awarded him $7.2 million in damages, part of which he decided to give to charity.
The popcorn manufacturer, as of a year ago, was considering an appeal. As for Watson, whatever amount he keeps from the $7.2 million won’t be going toward more popcorn — he gave up that habit.
From the Archives: Zapped Chocolate: How the microwave came to be.
Related: A lot of popcorn. (Don’t inhale the fumes!)