July 22, 2014

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Butter flavor deadly to popcorn workers

Each morning, Eric Peoples sits up in bed and starts his day with a cough. A deep, long, hacking cough.

He plants his feet on the bedroom floor and feels as if someone is standing on his chest. That’s a good day. When it gets really bad, it seems as though a giant creature is crushing his lungs, squeezing the breath out of him.

AP
Dr. Allen Parmet, a public health physician in his Kansas City, Mo., points to a chest scan of one of his patients who contracted a lung disease as a result of exposure to buttery microwave popcorn flavoring.

Peoples has lived this way for several years. He got sick while mixing butter flavoring at a Missouri microwave popcorn plant, developing a ravaging lung disease that has tormented a small but alarming number of food workers across the nation.
Peoples sued. He won millions of dollars. Money isn’t a worry now. His health is.

At 35, he has lost three-fourths of his lung capacity. He relies on oxygen when it’s humid; one day, he may need a double lung transplant.

Peoples says no amount of money can make up for missing out on the chance to play ball with his son or teach his daughter to ride a bike. He isn’t as angry as he once was, he says, and is thrilled that some microwave popcorn makers will stop using the chemical tied to his illness.

But even now, it’s confounding to him that a pungent-smelling flavoring he poured in giant vats, a bright yellow pudding-like substance used to improve the taste of a common snack — popcorn — could change his life.

“When I first started getting sick, I was trying to figure out what it was,” he says. “It never dawned on me that it was the butter flavoring. It’s food. You eat it. I kept telling my family, surely it can’t be. Why would something like that be harmful? How could it be bad?”

• • •

In a world filled with hazards, some workers obviously face perilous conditions: miners burrowing in the earth, farmers spraying pesticides, meatpackers wielding long knives.

By that yardstick, mixing an additive that’s used to flavor popcorn, candy, baked goods and other foods — it’s also found naturally in small amounts in staples such as milk and butter — almost seems innocuous.

But to many, it’s not.

For several years, diacetyl, a chemical that gives foods a buttery taste, has been linked to a rare, irreversible lung disease. The result has been a public health debate that has stretched from Congress to courtrooms across the nation, leading to tens of millions of dollars in judgments.

Scientists, doctors, politicians, food companies, labor unions, lawyers and others have weighed in  as hundreds of workers have claimed they have severe lung disease or other respiratory illnesses from inhaling diacetyl vapors.

Now some major microwave popcorn companies have eliminated or plan to drop the ingredient, while Congress — with the support of the flavoring industry — is looking to reduce the danger in the workplace. But the Bush administration, some business groups and others say there isn’t enough scientific evidence to warrant government limits.

Edwin Foulke Jr., a top federal official, testified this spring at a congressional hearing that diacetyl is a “substance of suspicion,” but there’s no clear evidence it’s the one chemical that causes this disease.

But the doctor who was one of the first to detect the illness in workers says the science is solid and popcorn makers are right to drop diacetyl.

“I just wish this had been done earlier,” says Dr. Allen Parmet, a Kansas City public health physician. “There are hundreds of people who are sick and who are hurt, and it never should have happened.”

• • •

Seven years ago, an attorney asked Parmet to review the medical records of sworkers with some unusual lung problems.

Within 20 minutes, Parmet says, he knew what it was: bronchiolitis obliterans, a devastating disease that destroys the small airways of the lungs, leaving victims coughing and gasping for air. Parmet had seen it only three times in 25 years. Now he was poring over documents indicating several people had the disease — all employees of the Gilster-Mary Lee microwave popcorn plant in Jasper, Mo.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health dispatched investigators to the plant. By 2001, it had reported a link between butter flavorings and the disease, which became known as popcorn lung.

Three years later, the agency sent an alert to 4,000 companies with about 150,000 workers explaining steps that should be take as safety precautions, such as respirators and better ventilation systems.

Keith Campbell already was sick. He says he was diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans in 2002, after working two years at a ConAgra microwave popcorn plant in Ohio.

Why, he asks, did it take five years to do something about this? “Once something is found out something is bad for you, instead of trying to control it, I think it should be banned,” he says. “I don’t care if it’s butter flavoring or a nuclear power plant.”

Campbell doesn’t blame the plant. He sued the flavor companies, winning an undisclosed settlement.

“I got a new truck and new home, but I paid a high price for it,” he says. “They tell me I’ve got the lungs of an 80 year old. If I was 80, I’d be pretty perky. But when you’re 50, it stinks.”

So he putters around his house in Caledonia, Ohio, forcibly retired, trying not to wear himself out, even though sweeping a bedroom or changing a light bulb can do just that.

And every time he drives by the popcorn plant, the powerful smell makes his chest ache.