Common Food Flavoring Changed Lives Forever

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Cynthia White-Rhoads, Rocky Kline and Dalea and Ed Hawkins have all been diagnosed with a potentially fatal lung disease, bronchiolitis obliterans. 

The other commonality they share is they were all factory workers at the Marion ConAgra plant, making butter flavored microwave popcorn. They are so sick none of them can work, 10TV's Anietra Hamper reported.

"(Doctors) said I had lungs of an 85-year-old woman," White-Rhoads said.

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"My lungs are bad," Kline said. "I can't get air like I used to.  Performing a simple task causes me to lose my breath."

"I have to sleep propped up all the time," said Dalea Hawkins.  "I cough constantly.  (I'm) just exhausted all the time."

Government researchers confirmed that they all developed the rare lung disease from their exposure to a chemical called diacetyl.

They are among hundreds of workers around the U.S. who suffer from the disease known as Popcorn Lung.  Attorney Ken McClain, who represents the workers who have all resolved their lawsuits, said that nationally, similar lawsuits have resulted in more than $100 million in verdicts and settlements.

"It's a widespread problem, but this is just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of other workers who are potentially ill," McClain said.

Diacetyl is used to make butter flavoring. It's the vapor that is produced during the heating and mixing of diacetyl which makes it toxic, Hamper reported.

The discovery was made in 2000 by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health when dozens of workers from a Jasper, Mo., popcorn plant became sick.

NIOSH testing determined a link between diacetyl and bronchiolitis obliterans.  Their findings were documented in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002.

"Everybody was sick," Dalea Hawkins said.  "(We had) coughing, nose bleeds, skin irritations, eye irritations."

Dalea Hawkins began to wonder if the same chemical was making workers in Marion sick. They weren't required to wear any protection while working around the chemical.

"As far as masks or anything like that, to protect ourselves from breathing anything, there was nothing like that," Kline said.

"We asked for breathing masks at one time (and were told) they were too expensive," Dalea Hawkins said.

All they were required to wear was a hairnet, Hamper reported.

NIOSH investigators came to Marion in 2003 and determined that the workers were being harmed by the chemical. After recommendations, ConAgra implemented safety changes almost immediately that included providing respiratory masks to workers and overhauling the plant's ventilation system.

Diacetyl, which is often mixed in slurry rooms, is sometimes only contained by vinyl curtains.

10TV News asked to visit several plants, including ConAgra, but was not allowed inside, so we went to NIOSH labs in Cincinnati to see a chemical-free simulation showing how quickly the vapors can permeate throughout a plant without proper ventilation.

No one knows how much exposure it takes to make workers sick, Hamper reported.

"NIOSH research has shown that some workers have become ill after a very short amount of time being exposed to these chemicals," said Jennifer Topmiller of NIOSH.

After dozens of lawsuits by workers and questions by consumers, ConAgra Foods made a voluntary, company-wide decision to stop using diacetyl.

Despite mounting evidence of the negative health effects on workers, other companies still use diacetyl because they can.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration never instituted regulations for the chemical.  Efforts to push for standards have fallen on deaf ears for a decade, Hamper reported.

In 2006, two prominent labor unions petitioned OSHA to issue temporary standards for diacetyl.  A year later, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that was supported by the flavor industry to issue interim emergency standards. The bill died in the Senate, Hamper reported.

In the same year, OSHA announced a program requiring inspections of plants that use diacetyl. With no regulations, all it can do is compile data.

Now, in 2010, there are still no standards or regulation, meaning even though many workers use some safety protection, they have no way of knowing if it is effective enough. 

10TV News went to OSHA to find out why it has taken so long to implement standards for diacetyl.

"OSHA is developing a proposed rule and analyses to address occupational exposure," OSHA officials said in a statement. 

Last year they established a small business advocacy review panel to help in that process, Hamper reported.

"I think OSHA needs to move quickly," said Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who  sits on the Senate committee for Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which oversees matters of occupational and public health.

"I think that's the most important thing, that OSHA steps in - sets the rule, moves forward - enforces it and make sure the workers are protected," Brown said.

The day after 10TV's November interview with Brown, he sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, asking the agency to proceed with a sense of urgency.

Within weeks, OSHA established its 2010 agenda. Citing Brown's interest, the agency has added diacetyl standards to their priority list for the coming year saying that OSHA will "work aggressively to complete these required steps."

In the meantime, the lawsuits continue.  Lives are changing and workers are dying.

"Many of these workers on lung transplant lists, many of them received transplants," McClain said.  "It's not a very promising future once your lungs are in this kind of situation."

Workers said that they would not wish their fate on anyone.

"We need to get this stopped," White-Rhoads said.  "They need to do away with this flavoring."

The workers told Hamper that they had no idea the chemical was still being used.  Now, workers in other industries are coming forward with lawsuits, including bakery workers and professional chefs all who all come into contact with diacetyl vapors.

Nexrt week, learn more about the chemical is affecting consumers and what happened when 10TV News took the issue to Washington, D.C. 

Stay with 10TV News and for additional information.