Tuesday, March 09, 2004

More on Popcorn Lung Trial

The Eternal Song of the Canary

I've been closely following the lawsuit filed by a worker against a company that made microwave popcorn incredient that disintegrated his lungs. Eric Peoples, 32 and father of a 10 year old daughter needs a double lung transplant and is not expected to live past 50. Thirty of Peoples' former co-workers experiencing similar degenerative conditions

Why am I so interested in this trial? Maybe it's this:
In 1999, workers at the Jasper plant developed rashes and respiratory problems. A year later, Kansas City, Mo., occupational physician [Allen] Parmet, hired by workers' attorneys, isolated the problem by comparing records of eight victims.

"I said, `My gosh, they all work at the same plant. Holy smokes, they've all got bronchiolitis obliterans,'" Parmet testified last week. He was referring to a rare lung disorder that attacks roughly 1 in 40,000 Americans and causes breathing problems and airway obstructions.
Anyone remember the 1978 film "Song of the Canary?" Part of it was about workers suffering from brown lung. The other part was about workers making the pesticide DBCP at Occidental Chemical in Lathrop, California. Basically, they figured out by themselves that DBCP caused sterility by putting two and two together when they realized that almost everyone working with the pesticide was having trouble conceiving children. Yes, Occidental was aware of studies that showed that DBCP caused "testicular atrophy" in rats, but no one bothered to tell the workers or provide protection. They had to figure it out for themselves after it was too late.

I think most people are under the impression that there are lots of well funded, objective scientists out there whose mission in life is to make sure that chemicals don't harm people, and if they do, ban them or make sure they're strictly controlled.

Actually, however, no one's really looking out for the welfare of American workers, except for American workers, they're unions and far too few workplace health and safety activists and professionals. Today, as in the 1970's, 1950's and back into time, workers are like the canaries in the mines who were the first to keel over from bad air, warning the miners to get out.

Because no one else is doing it.
Under cross-examination, Peoples said no one at the popcorn plant ever suggested that he or other workers should wear a respirator and acknowledged that he did not know whether the company had a hazardous-materials plan.

Jeff Hollyhead, corporate vice president for occupational health and safety at International Flavors and Fragrances, said in a videotaped deposition that he was aware of the NIOSH report that concluded that his company's butter flavoring likely made the workers at the Jasper plant ill. He said he scanned the report and passed it on to a company industrial hygienist.

"We frankly did not believe it," Hollyhead said
Meanwhile, we have chemical laws that essentially consider chemicals to be innocent until proven guilty. And even when proven guilty, it's almost impossible to ban them. (We can't even seem to ban asbestos in this country). OSHA regulates fewer than 600 chemicals and most of those are based on standards that are almost 40 years old.

An effort is currently underway in Europe called the Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) that is intended to address both workplace exposures and environmental pollution in the European Union.
Under REACH, chemical manufacturers and importers would be required to gather and report the quantity, uses and potential health effects of approximately 30,000 chemicals. About 1,400 of these chemicals are known or suspected to be carcinogens, reproductive toxicants, persist in the environment or to accumulate in body tissues. The initiative would subject these 1,400 chemicals to an authorization review similar to that used in the regulation of pharmaceuticals. Approval of any use that could result in human exposures would be predicated on a thorough assessment of safety considerations and alternative products.
The European chemical industry is furiously fighting this proposal. And the U.S. government and chemical industry are fighting at their side. Their great fear is that if something like that gets passed in Europe, not only won't American companies be able to sell many of their dangerous chemicals over there, but someone might get the same idea over here.

Each morning, Peoples takes at least five pills to help him breathe, according to medical testimony. He then breathes into a device for at least 15 minutes to clear his lungs of mucous that builds up overnight.

Peoples' father, David, fought back tears as he told the jury of his son's travails: his marriage nearly breaking up, debts and declining health. Sitting at the attorneys' table, Peoples' wife, Candy, sobbed.

In an unusual agreement for trial litigation, attorneys agreed to let Peoples testify sporadically because of his failing health. Last week, his attorneys showed the jury pictures of Peoples' family while he took the stand for 25 minutes.

Taking in air from a respirator, Peoples talked not of the best-paying job he ever had but of his family. Looking at a photo of his 10-year-old daughter, Audrianna, Peoples said softly: "Every father looks forward to giving away his daughter when it's time for her to start a family."