NIOSH: Emergence of Possible New Occupational Disease

The scent of hot, buttered popcorn is one of those unique, easily identified smells. It doesn't matter if it's served at the movies or microwaved in our homes, dripping with real butter or covered in "golden topping," most of us love it. But is it the cause of a new occupational disease?

According to Dr. Richard Kanwal of the National Institute (NIOSH) for Occupational Safety and Health, the answer could very well be yes. Kanwal studied the workers at the Gilster-Mary Lee microwave popcorn plant in Jasper, Mo., and found an alarming number of employees to be at risk for obstructive lung disease. ( originally reported this story in April 2002. See "CDC: Reports Illustrate the Importance of Reducing Workplace Injury.")

NIOSH, which sent researchers to Jasper and other locations in five states that manufacture similar products or use similar ingredients, suspect there might be a new occupational illness brewing in Jasper and other locations. Called "Popcorn Packer's Lung," the illness can be fatal and is irreversible. Back in May 2000, when Allen Parmet, an occupational health physician at Midwest Occupational Medicine in Kansas City, Mo., contacted the Missouri Department of Health to report eight cases of fixed obstructive lung disease in former workers of the Gilster-Mary Lee facility. The Missouri Department of Health contacted NIOSH, which dispatched Kanwal and his team.

When they got to the facility, investigators saw employees mixing soybean oil, salt and flavorings in a large heated tank in a process "that produces visible dust, aerosols and vapors with a strong, buttery odor." They learned that from 1992-2000, the factory employed approximately 560 workers. By May 2000, 425 no longer worked at the facility; a high rate of turnover at a facility that is one of largest and best-paying employers in the city of Jasper.

The NIOSH researchers learned four workers at the Jasper facility are awaiting lung transplants, and at least 30 former employees are suffering from severe breathing problems. The effects of "Popcorn Packer's Lung" on some workers at the plant have been devastating.

Hal Woods, a former employee at the facility, is suffering from a cough, reddened eyes and a skin condition on his hands and feet that is so severe his skin peeled off in large chunks. Linda Redman, a former employee who became sick in 1996, has severe obstructive lung disease, as does Angela Nally, another former employee who coughed so hard at one point she broke a rib. Eric Peoples, 28 years' old with young children, is waiting for a double lung transplant.

Kanwal and his team found that workers at the Gilster-Mary Lee facility have twice the risk of the average worker of suffering from respiratory problems. Research is continuing in efforts to identify the exact cause of the disease, which appears to be linked with high exposures to vapors from flavoring, and to determine if cases also are occurring among workers at other popcorn plants. NIOSH is working with the company, with workers with the state health department to determine the scope of the risk and to evaluate protection measures.

"The company has taken extensive measures to improve ventilation and do certain engineering controls with the process, so that exposures are decreased, and they have been decreased by several orders of magnitude," said Kanwal. He said respirators are available to workers, but only a handful of workers use them.

Former workers are suing the company that makes the flavoring used for the popcorn produced at the Jasper facility. The lawsuit claims that New York-based International Flavors & Fragrances knew its product was dangerous but didn't provide warnings or instructions on safe use. Company officials say the flavoring is not to blame for the workers' illnesses. The popcorn flavorings "are safe for handling and use by workers in food manufacturing plants when used in accordance with specified safety procedures."

In a statement, Gilster-Mary Lee says it has "provided, and will continue to provide, a safe, healthy work environment for its employees."

In the meantime, NIOSH is urging doctors to report any cases of suspected job-related respiratory disease in workers exposed to food flavorings.

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