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A Fatal Flavor?

Health & Wellness  (tags: alert, toxins, environment, risks, safety, diet, prevention )

- 4041 days ago -
More than 400 workers in flavorings and popcorn plants across the country - many in Ohio - claim they have developed severe respiratory problems. At least two dozen have been diagnosed with a rare lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans.

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Tanya R (118)
Sunday May 27, 2007, 2:35 pm
A fatal flavor?
Lawsuits and scientific research suggest a workplace health threat at Givaudan's Carthage plant
With a nose for a new career, Robin Doane went to work at a factory known for its olfactory appeal.

In the mid-1990s, when the Givaudan Flavors Corp. plant here was known as Tastemaker Corp., Doane's duties sent her daily into an aromatic carnival of grape, maple, orange, spearmint, coffee, butterscotch, cinnamon, roast beef, butter and other scents. Butter flavoring was a big seller, especially to popcorn makers. It was also a big head-turner.

"If you went to the store, people would say they smell butter or cooking," said Doane, who lives in Milford. "Your car, your house, your skin would smell like it. It would cling to everything."

A decade after leaving her job as a Givaudan flavor compounder, Doane says the butter flavoring still clings to something else: the passages of her lungs. On Jan. 17, she and a former co-worker, Joey Wallace, filed suit against the company. They blame Givaudan for an irreversible lung ailment that leaves them out of breath after minor physical activity, in her case climbing a few stairs, pushing a loaded shopping cart or playing with her 8-year-old son.

"I have to be real careful in everything I do," said Doane, 44. "I can't eat large amounts of food because it pushes up my diaphragm and causes breathing problems. Smoke bothers me, and sometimes I wake up in my sleep gasping for air."

Through scientific papers, medical studies and court cases, the image of a possible occupational health minefield is taking shape in an industry whose products are as benign to consumers as the fruits and substances they mimic. More than 400 workers in flavorings and popcorn plants across the country - many in Ohio - claim they have developed severe respiratory problems. At least two dozen have been diagnosed with a rare lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans. At least five workers have died, including three who used to work at the Givaudan plant.

Juries in four civil trials in Missouri have already found butter flavorings responsible for giving workers the disease. The verdicts were returned in 2004 and 2005 against International Flavors & Fragrances, a New York company that supplied butter flavorings to the Gilster Mary Lee Popcorn plant in Jasper, Mo. Four workers were awarded a total of $52.7 million, later settling for lesser, undisclosed amounts.

Now a legal battlefront is forming in the nation's flavor capital - Cincinnati.

Humphrey, Farrington & McClain, the Independence, Mo., law firm that represents the Gilster Mary Lee workers, has filed five lawsuits in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court. All name Givaudan, a Swiss company that employs 750 people at its main U.S. operation in Carthage. One was filed by more than 200 workers of two Marion, Ohio, popcorn plants supplied by Givaudan, the world's biggest flavorings company. Another blames Givaudan for lung damage sustained by an employee of Gold Medal Products Co., an Evendale-based popcorn machine maker that used Givaudan flavorings.

Givaudan denies the claims, although it won't elaborate and declined interviews for this story.

Humphrey, Farrington & McClain lawyer Steven Crick said dozens of other claims have been settled nationwide, including two Givaudan cases involving popcorn plant workers in Marion and Sioux City, Iowa. The settlements forbid him from disclosing dollar amounts.

"Many flavoring companies have been aware for years that some flavor chemicals can cause permanent lung injury, yet they refuse to test those flavors or their products," Crick said.

"How many people must be injured before flavoring companies decide to actually test their own products?"

In California, some lawmakers don't want to wait any longer.

In February, state Assemblywoman Sally Lieber introduced a bill banning diacetyl, a butter flavoring ingredient suspected of causing bronchiolitis obliterans. State health officials have identified 30 flavorings workers with extreme shortness of breath.

"Since there are substitutes for diacetyl designed to release less volatile chemicals or powder into the air, it is unacceptable for the state to continue to allow its use when its horrific effects have been abundantly demonstrated," Lieber said at a hearing April 10.

A trade group for the $3.5 billion-a-year U.S. flavoring industry, the Flavor & Extract Manufacturers Association, calls diacetyl a "high priority" substance and asserts the "need to be cautious" in its use. But, it adds, the research to date shows only an association between diacetyl and bronchiolitis obliterans, not a medical cause-and-effect.

For now, member companies are urged to "protect workers accordingly."

The association "has done so through its approach of focusing on minimizing exposures to all flavoring substance and by focusing on medical surveillance and illness protection," said general counsel John Hallagan. The trade group has sponsored three workshops, he said, "including an extensive training workshop in February 2005 providing instruction to workplace safety officers on how to protect workers from respiratory hazards."

Hallagan said about 3,500 people work in the production area of 80 flavoring companies in the U.S. Three companies in this region - Givaudan, Wild Flavors in Erlanger and Mane Inc. in Miami Township, Clermont County - have a combined 1,200 employees. How many of those work in flavor-mixing areas was not available.


The Latin name bronchiolitis obliterans refers to the obliteration of small passages in the lungs called bronchioli. The damage is permanent.

"It's an inflammation of the very small airways of the lungs, before you get to where gas exchange takes place," said James Lockey, a professor of pulmonary medicine at University of Cincinnati's Department of Environmental Health, who tested Givaudan workers in the mid-1990s. "The airways get plugged with scar tissue, and when that happens the air can't get through them anymore."

Industry awareness of diacetyl as a human health threat in large amounts dates back to at least 1985. That year, the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials reported that "high concentrations may cause irritation of respiratory tract" and is "capable of producing systemic toxicity."

One year later, diacetyl was fingered by expert witnesses in a lawsuit filed by two young, healthy, non-smoking workers at International Bakers Services in South Bend, Ind.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health wrote that the workers' obstructed breathing was consistent with bronchiolitis obliterans. NIOSH concluded that "some agent" in the mixing room probably caused the disease. Diacetyl was one of 40 chemicals that experts said should be tested for health effects.

Susan Daum, an occupational physician who wrote the book Work is Dangerous to Your Health, examined those cases as an expert witness in the lawsuits. In her 1989 affidavit, she wrote that the company's use of such chemicals without first determining their safety for human use was "tantamount to using the blenders at International Bakers Services as blue-collar guinea pigs."


In 1992, John Hochstrasser had just started his job as director of environmental health and safety at the Givaudan plant. Hochstrasser was worried about contaminated workplace air because a worker in the company's liquids department in Carthage, Janice Meenach-Irick, had just died of bronchiolitis obliterans. Other employees were having breathing difficulties.

"We had significant environmental issues, significant health issues that were going to come up," Hochstrasser said under oath in a wrongful discharge lawsuit he filed against Givaudan in 1998. "They have to come up sooner or later."

At his urging, Givaudan upgraded its ventilation equipment and conducted medical tests on employees. But Hochstrasser still thought the plant needed to improve ventilation. Until then, he suggested that Givaudan shut down the plant. But Givaudan fired him in 1997.

"They should not have let those employees in the plant," Hochstrasser said in his deposition in federal court in Cincinnati. "They were exposed the entire time they were in the plant."

Givaudan settled the suit in 2000 by agreeing to pay Hochstrasser $25,000 a year for 20 years. He said he provides consulting services to the company.

It was during Hochstrasser's tenure at Givaudan that the flavorings industry learned more about the effect of butter fumes on workers. Lockey and two other health specialists were brought into the plant from UC's College of Medicine. By the time they completed breathing tests and health surveys in 1997, they found bronchiolitis obliterans in six employees. Two died later.

One of them was Walt Vaske, who died in 2003. The other was Clifford Walker, who worked at Givaudan from 1990 to 2000, part of that time as a flavor mixer. His wife, Bernice Walker of Colerain Township, said he developed the breathing problems while at Givaudan.

"He was active. He played basketball, cut the grass and went fishing all the time," she said. "These last three years, he wasn't able to do anything like that. He just did not have the strength or the desire to do any of that. And he was coughing constantly. "

Clifford Walker died last Oct. 4. He was 59.

Bernice Walker, represented by Crick, filed suit in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court in January. She named Givaudan, 11 chemical suppliers and the Flavor and Extract Manufacturing Association as defendants. The suit claims that flavoring chemicals had the "propensity" to cause bronchiolitis obliterans and respiratory illnesses. It accuses the companies of failing to warn employees of the chemicals' danger.

But the suit goes one step further. It says that the companies and the association conspired to withhold information about the dangers of diacetyl and another flavoring compound, acetaldehyde, "from the scientific and medical communities, the government and the public, including Mr. Walker." It says Givaudan never told Walker that he had bronchiolitis obliterans. He found out, the suit says, in 2006, a decade after his diagnosis.


In its answer to the lawsuits, Givaudan said it had nothing to do with Walker's death or Doane's disease. It denies that exposure to diacetyl or acetaldehyde can cause respiratory system damage or shortness of breath. The flavor association calls the conspiracy allegation "completely false," noting that the same charges against it were dismissed before three other suits went to trial in Missouri.

The association "has ... shared information on respiratory health and safety with industry members, regulators and the public as soon as it became available," Hallagan said.

Executives of Givaudan declined to be interviewed. A local spokesman, Jeff Peppet, would not discuss butter flavorings or any safety measures taken to protect workers. He would not say whether the company still uses diacetyl as a flavoring ingredient.

"Because of the litigation, I can't talk about diacetyl or the company's use of it," Peppet said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration spent five days at Givaudan in 2006 and reported encountering no production workers with respiratory problems. It noted that Givaudan requires production workers to wear full-face masks - as federal guidelines recommend - with replaceable filter cartridges. A company handbook instructs workers to make sure their masks fit properly before each use and to change the cartridge at least once a month.

"Appropriate industrial hygiene practices and medical surveillance can assure that workers in flavor manufacturing facilities have the best protection possible," Hallagan said.

The government came under intensified pressure in 2006 to prevent harm from the suspected effects of diacetyl. Last July, the United Food and Commercial Workers union petitioned U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao for emergency and permanent rules protecting workers from diacetyl. They were joined by three Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 38 occupational health professors.

One of the academics was Dr. Eula Bingham, a UC professor of environmental health and former assistant U.S. secretary of labor for occupational safety and health under the Carter administration.

"There is compelling epidemiologic and toxicological evidence linking exposure to diacetyl to severe respiratory impairment and disease," the professors wrote. "It is now time for OSHA to use the scientific evidence to protect American workers from debilitating lung disease."


On April 24, OSHA announced a program to "address the hazards and control measures" of popcorn plants using diacetyl-based butter flavorings. The agency excluded flavoring plants.

Unless OSHA writes a specific standard for diacetyl, the agency has no "permissible exposure limit" for diacetyl as it does for 46 of 1,037 flavoring ingredients considered potential respiratory hazards by the industry. NIOSH, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, intends to find out if diacetyl is indeed hazardous.

NIOSH had recommended in 2004 that companies take precautionary steps to protect workers from flavoring vapors. It recommended closing off production areas, issuing protective equipment and monitoring worker health. It also suggested finding substitute flavoring chemicals.

Doing full-time clerical work today, Robin Doane blames her case of bronchiolitis obliterans on Givaudan. She remembers pouring 5-gallon buckets of liquid diacetyl into huge metal vats of butter flavoring, thick fumes rising up to her unprotected face. The work, she said, left her more and more fatigued and out of breath. A softball player who played three or four nights a week, Doane gave up the game at 30.

Doane says it's time to do something about the butter-flavoring issue once and for all.

"It bothers me that it's still going on," Doane said. "How many other people are going to be sick and not realize it? I could be dead if somebody hadn't pulled me and had me tested."
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