Sunday, October 22, 2006

Your Job Or Your Life: Popcorn Lung Comes To Wisconsin

This is sickening.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinal has a two part series about how the "popcorn lung" tragedy has hit the state of Wisconsin, "'Killer Butter' Puts Illinois Worker's Life in Precarious State," and "Struggling for air: Flavoring chemical tied to severe lung disease remains unregulated".

The articles tell stories all too familiar to Confined Space readers where we've been writing about popcorn lung for years: how diacetyl, the fake butter flavoring chemical literally destroys the lungs of food workers exposed even for a relatively short time, how despite overwhelming evidence of the chemical's danger, as well as sick and dying workers, OSHA refuses to even contemplate regulatory action, how a group of unions and a group of scientists have petitioned OSHA to issue an emergency standard to protect workers, how the EPA is studying whether or not consumers are exposed (but hasn't released the results), how juries have awarded and companies have settled for more than $100 million in lawsuits filed nationwide by workers injured by diacetyl, and how the FDA considers the deadly substance "safe," based on industry data.

But with all we now know about the dangers of this deadly chemical, this is the most sickening thing I've read in those years. "Stuggling for Air" starts off with the story of this man:
A lean and fit 35-year-old Milwaukee man had been working at a local flavoring plant for just six months when he collapsed while playing basketball with his buddies.

He felt like he was hyperventilating. He couldn't figure it out. He always played basketball.

Then he noticed his sweat: It was bright orange.

Around the same time in 2004, he began to cough and wheeze and noticed a regular shortness of breath.

When he told his employer that he thought his symptoms might be linked to his 12-hour days bagging the powders that make some cheeses orange and give popcorn and other foods their butter flavor, his boss told him that there wasn't anything he could do about it.

Today - 2 1/2 years later - the man, who didn't want his name or his company's name published for fear he would be fired, has grocery bags full of prescription medications and a garbage bag packed with documents detailing his many doctor visits and dealings with his employer.

"I would give back every dime I ever made . . . to get my lungs back," he said.
But the end of the story is even more tragic:
As much as he hates to do it, the man who collapsed while playing basketball will report to work until he can figure out another way to support himself and his three children, he said.

He will continue pouring, mixing and bagging flavors that, when ventilated through a fan in the roof, turn the snow outside the plant yellow and orange in the winter, he said.

With no bachelor's degree and little professional experience, he fears he won't be able to match the roughly $18 an hour he earns at the flavor plant. Plus, he said he needs the medical benefits now more than ever.

"There are a lot of reasons I can't just walk away from this job," he said.
So what kind of a country is this that even knowing that exposure to a chemical can cause death, will allow people to continue working with it. And what kind of a country is this where a sick man seems to have no choice but to continue being exposed to a chemical he knows is killing him?

Meanwhile, "'Killer Butter' Puts Illinois Worker's Life in Precarious State," follows the story of Gerardo Solis, who worked for Chicago-area flavor companies in 19 years. Solis had first thought diacetyl, the chemical used for butter flavoring, only damaged his eyes. It was only last July that he learned that it was also destroying his lungs and would probably soon kill him:
The 41-year-old father of three was diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans, a severe and sometimes fatal disease that has destroyed 76% of his lung capacity. A bad cold or any minor respiratory infection could kill him.

Solis drops his chin and slowly shakes his head when he considers that it could have been prevented.

If somebody would have told him years ago when he first started coughing that the chemicals he worked with were to blame, he said, he would have found a new job.

Instead, doctors diagnosed him with asthma in 1990, three years after he started his job at a flavor factory. By 1999, pulmonary tests showed his lungs were functioning at 34% capacity, but still no diagnosis. In 2004, an industry-paid doctor came to the factory to test the workers and found Solis to be quite sick. Again, nobody suggested diacetyl might be at the root of his illness.

"I'm thinking more and more that it's criminal what they did," Solis said of the companies not finding or admitting the link.
And the problem threatens to get worse:
Scientists and public health experts say an occupational epidemic in the food-processing industry could be on the horizon.

"We're very concerned that the cases that we know about are just the tip of the iceberg," said David Weissman, director of respiratory disease studies with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a scientific and research arm within the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


"This is just an example of the regulatory system falling on its face," said David Michaels, professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University and director of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy.

Flavoring industry workers in some other states, including California, have a state agency overseeing workplace safety and unions that advocate for them. In Wisconsin, the workers rely solely on OSHA and are not unionized.
We've written about how California is having problems tackling the issues. But Wisconsin and other states apparently aren't doing even that well:
"Wisconsin simply does not have a robust occupational disease surveillance system in place," said Henry Anderson, the state's chief medical officer for environmental and occupational health.

"Most physicians don't take a good occupational history. . . . They don't want to get involved in workers' comp. The next thing they know, someone is challenging their expertise."

Terry Graves, an allergist with the Milwaukee Allergy and Asthma Centers, said he questioned the Milwaukee man who collapsed on the basketball court extensively about his work in the plant.

Graves diagnosed him with occupational-related asthma and suggested that he stay away from work for roughly two months. Graves continued to see him roughly every two to four months and noticed that the man was getting progressively worse. His lung capacity declined from 84% to 68% in just one year.

But a possible link with bronchiolitis obliterans didn't arise. According to Graves' files, the man talked about another chemical and didn't mention diacetyl until February 2006, nearly a year after his first visit with Graves.

"I'm aware of bronchiolitis obliterans. . . . I hadn't really been entertaining that," Graves said. "Sounds like I should do some more looking."

Few doctors in the country have made that diagnosis for patients who work in the flavor industry, said Robert Harrison, president of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists. The disease is often overlooked, he said.

"Many of the bronchiolitis obliterans cases were initially diagnosed as chronic bronchitis . . . and asthma," he said. "It takes an alert doctor."

Sluggish federal requirements do nothing to spark interest in the disease, he said. It is not among the diseases the CDC requires states to track. There is no "case definition" to assure uniformity of disease recognition, and hospital discharge data and death certificates don't identify it.

"We've got to get the word out," Harrison said.
We've got to do more than that. Even when the word's out, we have people still being exposed to the stuff because they need a job. As usual, we need more than information. We need a government agency that will issue regulations that will eleminate hazardous exposures to this chemical, and if that's not possible, to ban the use of the chemical alltogether. Ask most people on the street and they'll probably tell you that we have agencies that will do that: OSHA, EPA and maybe even the FDA.

But they're wrong. These are Bush times. And people continue to have no choice to work in jobs that will kill them.

More popcorn lung stories here.