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Flavoring Chemical Worker’s Lawsuit Over ‘Popcorn Lung’ Results in $2.6M Verdict

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A California jury has awarded $2.6 million in damages to a man who developed a respiratory disorder known as “popcorn lung” after exposure to chemicals while working in a factory that made artificial butter flavoring for microwave popcorn. 

The trial involved a lawsuit brought by 38 year-old Tanu Vatuvei, who was diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans after working at the Mission Flavors Fragrances Inc. plant in Foothill Ranch.

According to allegations raised at trial, Vatuvei lost 60% of his lung capacity due to exposure to the chemical diacetyl, which was used for years to give microwave popcorn its buttery smell.

Since most people who develop bronchiolitis obliterans work in plants that use the butter flavoring chemical, the disease has come to be more commonly known as “popcorn lung”.

Following about four weeks of trial, an Orange County Superior Court jury in favor of Vatuvei, who worked at the plant for 10 years. The original lawsuit named a number of defendants, some of whom settled out of court before the trial began.

A number of similar popcorn lung lawsuits have been filed in recent years by plant workers exposed to the flavoring chemical, and by consumers exposed to high levels of diacetyle after years of consuming microwave popcorn.

The industry turned away from the use of diacetyl in microwave popcorn once its links to popcorn lung disease became widely recognized and have used a variety of substitutes to duplicate its effects.

The lung disease is characterized by the scarring and inflammation of small airways, known as bronchioles, which leads to diminished lung capacity and breathing problems. The disease is irreversible and severe cases may require lung transplants and can lead to death.

Vatuvei indicates that he still has 40% of his lung capacity, and that he is not currently eligible for a lung transplant. However, it is unclear whether his condition will worsen or has stabilized.

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