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Popcorn Lung Lawsuits on the Increase.

Dozens of plant workers who claim their health was damaged by exposure to a chemical used to give a buttery flavor to microwave popcorn have filed lawsuits in Cincinnati against makers of the flavoring.

At least 43 workers filed lawsuits claiming their lungs were irreversibly damaged by inhaling fumes from the chemical diacetyl, which provides the buttery taste. Some work at a local plant of Cincinnati-based Givaudan Flavors Corp. Many others are from a plant in Marion owned by Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra Foods.

Givaudan supplies flavorings to food manufacturers, including popcorn makers. ConAgra and other leading makers of microwave popcorn removed the flavoring chemical from their products after it was linked to cases of bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare life-threatening disease often referred to as “popcorn lung.”


Donald Powell of Burlington, Ky., worked at Givaudan for 18 years beginning in 1985. Powell, who was a chemical operator, suffers from severe lung damage and has trouble breathing, according to the lawsuit he filed in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court in November.

His lawsuit, and one filed by Paul Dunbar of Springfield Township in suburban Cincinnati and Emmett Cooper of the Cincinnati suburb of Norwood, claim that by 1985, Givaudan and two predecessor companies, Tastemaker and Fries and Fries, knew that diacetyl harmed workers.

A case that came to trial last week was filed by Kathryn Rayburn, a former packer at ConAgra’s popcorn plant in Marion north of Columbus. Rayburn’s attorney, Kenneth McClain, said the 48-year-old woman is a “pulmonary cripple” who has a difficult time walking one block.

“Her condition was caused by breathing butter flavoring,” said McClain, an Independence, Mo., attorney whose firm has represented workers across the country in similar suits.

Givaudan has said that Rayburn’s condition was caused by smoking and that it was ConAgra’s responsibility to warn its workers of the hazards of diacetyl.

ConAgra is not a defendant in the suit and ConAgra reformulated all of its microwave popcorn products by the end of 2007 to remove added diacetyl. For several years before that, the company had worked to reduce and finally eliminate employee exposure to the chemical.

The condition came to the attention of the national medical community in 2000, when eight cases cropped up at a Jasper, Mo., plant. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and the Missouri Department of Health found that workers there had twice the expected rate of asthma, chronic bronchitis, chronic cough and shortness of breath. Those who had never smoked had more than 10 times the expected rates.

The inhalation of butter flavoring ingredients was pinpointed as the cause, according to the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Several lawsuits have claimed that Givaudan became aware of the hazards of diacetyl as early as 1986.

Givaudan said that it didn’t know of the actual danger of diacetyl at that time but was investigating. The company said it also created written procedures for working with the chemical, brought in experts from the University of Cincinnati to help investigate and met with a trade group to discuss potential hazards.

“These are hardly the acts of an employer that knowingly, intentionally and deliberately caused harm to its employees,” Givaudan said in its court filing.

A federal jury last month in Sioux City, Iowa, found against Givaudan in a lawsuit filed by an Iowa man who claimed his lungs were damaged by working with the flavoring. The jury awarded $7.5 million to the Sioux City man a day after he died of lung and heart failure.

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