Thursday, October 13, 2005

Popcorn Lung Cases Settled

Nineteen victims of bronchiolitis obliterans or "popcorn lung," a disease that destroys the lungs, have reached a settlement with the manufacturer of diacetyl, the butter-flavoring chemical that caused the disease among the workers. The amount of the settlement was undisclosed, but does not affect the $53 million in damages to employees who won previous lawsuits against International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. and its subsidiary, Bush Boake Allen Inc.

I wrote quite a bit about this tragedy last year (see here) and how it illustrated the bankruptcy of the American regulatory system that assumes chemical to be innocent until proven guilty -- usually by the death or illness of exposed workers. Diacetyl had been found to cause serious lung damage years before these workers were exposed, yet the Material Safety Data Sheets did not contain appropriate warnings about the possible health effects or the need to wear respirators. Many of the workers exposed at the popcorn factory will need lung transplants. One of the scientists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health who studied the chemical after the effects became known used the words "astonishingly grotesque" to describe the toxic effect of diacetyl, a key ingredient in the flavoring. Another said that the effect of breathing butter flavoring vapors could be likened to inhaling acid.

OSHA has no permissible exposure limit covering diacetyl, the Toxic Substances Control Act doesn't cover diacetyl because it's a food additive, and the Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate diacetyl because it's authority does not extend to the toxic effects of food additives on workers.

Four workers won $53 million from juries in cases that were tried earlier, and six other workers reached settlements with the company. (More here)