Worker Wins Lawsuit Over Popcorn-Flavoring Induced Lung Disease

March 17, 2004
Eric Peoples can breath a little easier these days, knowing a jury awarded him and his wife Cassandra $20 million in damages for lung damage he suffered while working at the Gilster-Mary Lee microwave popcorn factory in Jasper, Mo.

Peoples, 32, is one of 30 workers who filed lawsuits against butter-flavor manufacturer International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. and its subsidiary Bush Boake Allen Inc., claiming the companies knew their products were hazardous and failed to provide warnings or safety precautions. People's case was the first to be heard, since he was deemed to the worker experiencing the most serious health problems. Eventually, said Peoples, he will require a double-lung transplant.

His troubles began about a year after he began working at the Gilster-Mary Lee plant. He thought he was suffering from respiratory problems association with a cold or flu, but was forced to seek medical care when over-the-counter medications did not alleviate his symptoms. Doctors eventually determined that Peoples had lung damage related to his breathing of the powder and fumes associated with the butter flavoring used on the microwave popcorn.

In a study published in the August 1, 2002 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, a team of researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) led by Kathleen Kreiss, M.D., medically evaluated 117 current employees at the Glister-Mary Lee plant. Back in May 2000, eight former employees at the facility were diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans, a severe, chronic lung disease. At that time, no recognized cause was identified in the plant, although a team of NIOSH researchers reported earlier in 2002 that they suspected diacetyl, a ketone used in the butter flavoring, might be the culprit.

Kreiss and her team evaluated the relationship between exposures to diacetyl and health-related symptoms. Overall, the workers had 3.3 times the expected rate of airway obstruction. Those workers who had never smoked had 10.8 times the expected rate.

Unsurprisingly, workers directly involved in the production of microwave popcorn had higher rates of shortness of breath on exertion and skin problems that developed since they started work than workers in other parts of the plant. There was a strong relationship between the estimated cumulative exposure to diacetyl and the frequency and extent of airway obstruction.

Following the NIOSH investigation, Gilster-Mary Lee, which is not named in the lawsuits, remodeled the plant and ordered workers to wear respirators.

Ken McClain, People's attorney, said the next trial is set for April 20. He told the Associated Press, "I want to keep the pressure up and get these cases done as soon as we can."

Attorneys for International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. insisted during the trial that the product is safe when handled properly. Information sent to managers at the popcorn plant warned the flavoring should be mixed in a well-ventilated area and a respirator should be worn when heating it.

"We know beyond a shadow of doubt that if you use basic hygiene practices, you don't have a problem in this plant," said Mike Patton, who represented New York-based International Flavors and Fragrances, told jurors, who took only three hours to reach their verdict.

For further news articles on this topic, see "NIOSH: Emergence of Possible New Occupational Disease," "NIOSH: Work in Popcorn Factory Increases Risk of Lung Disease" and "Popcorn Packer's Lung Disease Found in Iowa."

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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