Popcorn Workers Lung Leads to Disability, LawsuitsNov 20, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP
Popcorn is making some people sick. Really sick.
Bronchiolitis obliterans—Popcorn Workers Lung—is a rare, devastating, life-threatening disease that destroys the small airways of the lungs. Diacetyl, a chemical that gives foods like popcorn, candy, and baked goods that buttery taste, is linked to Popcorn Lungs.
One Missouri popcorn plant worker got sick from inhaling the chemical. He sued, winning millions. At 35, he has only one-quarter lung capacity, requires oxygen in humidity, and may need a double lung transplant. A ConAgra plant worker in Ohio diagnosed with Popcorn Workers Lung sued flavor companies and won. At 50, he has the lungs of an 80-year old.
Seven years ago, medical records of workers with unusual lung problems were reviewed. Within minutes, the reviewing physician confirmed Popcorn Workers Lung. Prior to this, he had seen it three times in 25 years; eight or nine people had the disease, all employees of the Gilster-Mary Lee popcorn plant in Jasper, Missouri. In a town of 1,000, the rare disease was an epidemic. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) investigated Jasper and confirmed the diacetyl-Popcorn Lung link and investigators identified or reviewed dozens of cases in popcorn and flavor-making plants nationwide, confirming three deaths. Some cases of Popcorn Workers Lung go back to the 1980s and there are reports of sick workers at candy and potato chip plants waiting to be investigated.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been criticized for being lax, but they argue that after Jasper, they alerted their regional offices, ordering a review; the OSHA region most affected produced a brochure. Many consider this too little too late. OSHA recently denied a labor petition asking for an emergency workplace limit on diacetyl, claiming there is inconclusive evidence it causes the illness or exposure constitutes grave danger.
Popcorn Lung is appearing outside of factories and was recently discovered in a man who ate at least two bags of buttery microwave popcorn daily for several years. His lung problems were linked to breathing diacetyl vapors.
Major microwave popcorn companies have eliminated or will drop diacetyl. Congress, with the support of the flavoring industry, is looking to reduce workplace danger. But the Bush administration, some business groups, and others say there is insufficient evidence to warrant government limits and a federal official recently testified at a congressional hearing that diacetyl is suspicious, but there's no clear evidence it is the one chemical causing Popcorn Lung. The doctor who detected the trend says the science is solid.
Hundreds of claims are filling court dockets and hundreds more are settling for tens of millions of dollars. One Missouri attorney has over 500 lawsuits. Pressure on federal agencies has increased and after years of studies and lawsuits, Popcorn Lung got the attention of Congress. In September, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill ordering federal safety regulators to compel popcorn factories and other plants to limit diacetyl exposure. The bill is supported by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association although opponents believe focusing on diacetyl ignores the possibility other flavorings are involved. Whether the measure will become law remains unclear.