Monday, March 15, 2004

Jury Awards Popcorn Lung Victim $20 Million

What Lessons Have We Learned?

In a huge victory for American workers who face unknown hazards from exposure to chemicals at work, a jury in Joplin, Missouri has awarded factory worker Eric Peoples $20 million dollars. Peoples had argued that his lungs were ruined as a result of mixing flavoring oils used in microwave popcorn.

Peoples had charged that International Flavors and Fragrances and Bush Boake Allen, the manufacturers of the diacetyl (the ingredient that gave the popcorn a buttery flavor) knew their butter flavoring was hazardous, but failed to warn the workers at the plant where the chemical was used of the dangers or provide adequate safety instructions.

Peoples' lawyers introduced testimony that tests done as far back as 1993 showed that diacetyl could cause severe lung damage and that workers at the factory that made the chemical wore respirators. The Material Safety Data Sheet given to the popcorn factory, however, contained the phrases "no known health hazards" and "respiratory protection is not normally required."

Peoples needs a double lung transplant and is not expected to live much past the age of 50. Thirty other workers who suffered damage from the chemical are also suing.

I've have written quite a bit about this tragedy (See under "Greatest Hits" on the upper right of this page), but it might be useful to review some of the "lessons" of this case:

  • Workers in this country are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. The health effects of chemical aren't adequately studied, and when they are, the results are hidden -- until someone notices that workers are starting to get sick and die. Ironically, Eric Peoples was somewhat lucky. Diaceyl left its "fingerprint" on his lungs in a relatively short period of time. Had the damage caused by the chemical masked itself as some more common "lifestyle" disease, it may never have been linked back to his working conditions.

  • Current OSHA standards are ineffective. Despite the arguments over the legal interpretations and uses of OSHA's respirator and general duty standards, the fact is that OSHA standards are woefully inadequate to protect workers from the effects of most hazardous chemicals. The vast majority of OSHA's chemical exposure standards are over 30 years old and they only cover around 600 of the tens of thousands of chemicals in use today. Most chemicals have not been adequately tested and even where good data about chemical hazards exists, the information is often not communicated to workers, as we have seen in this case.

    In rare cases, the General Duty Clause or the respirator standard can successfully be used to protect some workers. But ultimately, until chemicals are adequately tested before workers are exposed, until more chemicals are adequately regulated, and until workers have a right to refuse to work with hazardous or untested chemicals, tragedies like this will continue to occur. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, more often than not, we won't even know how many workers are getting sick and dying from exposure to toxic chemicals.

  • Industry Associations Lack Credibility. OSHA may never again be able to issue any kind of "controversial" standard, no matter how needed. And the reason isn't due to lack of science. The reason is opposition by the regulated industries, generally led by the associations representing those industries. New regulations aren't needed because companies naturally want to protect their workers, they cry. All they need is information.

    Well, in this case we saw that the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) had information about the hazards of diacetyl way before Eric Peoples was exposed. What did they do with it? Who knows? But it clearly never made it to the factory where Eric Peoples and his co-workers were employed, despite the fact that FEMA took upon itself the responsibility for evaluating and approving the safety of flavoring ingredients.

    Business associations have a legitimate role in our society. Businesses have a legitimate need for information about what happens in Washington. They have a legitimate need to have their interests represented. They need information clearinghouses and guidance on common issues such as health and safety.

    There is a legitimate need for such associations and that's why businesses pay their dues. But all of my experience shows their members aren't getting what they pay for. The associations lie distort and misrepresent information about practical, common sense laws and regulations that can only benefit the economic health of the industry and the physical health of their workers. They fund politicians who care more about their short-term campaign funds than they do about the long-term credibility and survival of the industry. They only seem to be able to exist by constantly claiming that the sky is falling. And they don't even do a decent job of disseminating information about health and safety hazards. Members should ask for their dues money back.

  • The practice of considering chemicals to be innocent until proven guilty must end. I have written often about REACH, the European Union's proposal to gather and report the quantity, uses and potential health effects of approximately 30,000 chemicals, and about the defects of the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act. We must call on the U.S. Government to not only stop lobbying against the European proposal, but to advocate for a similar law here. (Although, realistically, we may need a regime change here before that happens.)
So, this jury verdict feels good. As Eric Peoples said, "We're relieved that it's over and our lives can get back to as normal as they can be. At least for now, we'll be able to spoil our children and let them forget for a while.''

But he and others are not going to have the lives that they should have had and they are still going to die much sooner than they should have.

Ultimately, victory will only come in the form of strong laws that will keep this from ever happening again. And for that we need a lot more people to be a lot more outraged at what we continue to do to the workers of this country and why we continue to let it happen right under our noses.

vapor vapors
Additional articles in this series are listed at the right under Greatest Hits