Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Workers Lose Third Popcorn Lung Trial

Is this any way to protect workers?

Three trials brought about by lawsuits filed by workers whose lungs were (allegedly) destroyed by exposure to diacetyl, a butter-flavoring for microwave popcorn. The first ended up in a $20 million verdict for the worker and his wife, while the second was settled minutes before the jury returned its verdict.

Now, the jury in the third trial has decided that the companies that manufactured the chemical, International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. and Bush Boake Allen Inc., were not to blame for the lung damage suffered by, former workers Dustin Smith, 25, Evelyn Standhardt, 60, and Marge Unruh 51, and current worker Velma Ingalls, 34.
The four sued the two companies, claiming that a butter flavoring used at the Jasper Popcorn Co. plant in Jasper contained a chemical known as diacetyl that health experts say caused the four to contract bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare lung disease that causes shortness of breath and progressively restricts the airways.

International Flavors purchased Bush Boake Allen in 2001. The butter flavoring that the workers contend caused their illness was made by Bush Boake Allen.

In closing arguments, Mike Patton, an attorney representing International Flavors, and Frank Woodside, an attorney representing Bush Boake Allen, told the jury that improper industrial hygiene at the Jasper popcorn plant was to blame for the workers' illnesses.

Neither the original owners of the popcorn plant nor Gilster-Mary Lee Corp., which purchased the plant in 1999, was named in the lawsuits.

Patton said that since workers have started wearing respirators and the plant has enclosed the mixing area, no one has gotten sick at the plant, which continues to use the same butter flavoring.

"Proper industrial hygiene solved the problem," Patton said.

Woodside told the jury that the Kansas City occupational physician who diagnosed the outbreak of bronchiolitis obliterans in 2000 described the condition as "a unique and previously unrecognized disease." Woodside said that before 2001, no one knew that diacetyl could damage the lungs.

"We're supposed to warn or know about a new disease that didn't exist before?" Woodside asked the jury.
Indeed, how would you? Unless...it's not entirely true. It was in 1993 that BASF found that “After breathing diacetyl vapors for just four hours, some rats gagged and gasped for breath. Half the rats in the study died within a day."

Meanwhile, in the early 1990's, International Flavors & Fragrances, one of the targets of the lawsuits, was distributing Material Safety Data Sheets that contained the phrases "no known health hazards" and "respiratory protection is not normally required," while at the same time eqipping their workers with respirators.

So, as I asked at the beginning, is this where the United States of America needs to be at the beginning of the 21st century -- waiting until guinea pigs workers are made ill or killed by unregulated (and often untested) toxic chemicals, then depending on the arbitrary whims of juries as our only means to compensate them (or their survivors)? And hopefully in the process warning chemical manufacturers to be a bit more careful in the future lest their shareholders get mad if they lose a lawsuit.

Pretty sad.