Bronchiolitis Obliterans—Popcorn Lung—Cases Continue, Lawsuits Mount

Bronchiolitis_ObliteransAccording to researchers, cases of bronchiolitis obliterans continue to be seen in a broad array of areas and involving a number of industries.

We have long followed the issue of bronchiolitis obliterans, a respiratory disease that is casually known as “Popcorn Lung.” The condition received its nickname in 2007 when it was found to be occurring in popcorn plant workers. Bronchiolitis obliterans is a potentially life-threatening, irreversible ailment, for which the only cure is a lung transplant in severe cases. Popcorn Lung inflames the bronchioles—the small lung airway—causing scarring and obliterating appropriate airflow.

The chemical flavoring diacetyl, which was popularly used in microwaveable popcorn, was long deemed the culprit in Popcorn Lung cases. The chemical is used to butter flavor a number of snack foods and also naturally occurs in some foods and drinks, according to Law360. The chemical has led to mounting lawsuits as scientists and regulators find that excessive diactyl exposure may likely lead to bronchiolitis obliterans.

Researchers also believe that another butter flavoring chemical, pentanedione, could cause bronchiolitis obliterans. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have become involved, wrote Law360.

Claims of bronchiolitis obliterans were also linked to cases Taiwan in the mid-1990s when the plant, Sauropus androgynus (sweet leaf or star gooseberry), a popular weight loss aid, was being served as a side dish or juice, explained Law360. Some were drinking the raw juice with large quantities of fruit juice to cover the unpleasant taste of sweet leaf. The weight loss fad ended when researchers diagnosed a number of women who developed bronchiolitis obliterans after consuming the raw S. androgynus juice.

In 2000, the Missouri Department of Health notified NIOSH of eight possible cases of bronchiolitis obliterans in a single popcorn plant. The agency reported an increased rate of Popcorn Lung in microwave popcorn plant workers who mixed butter flavorings, according to Law360.

In 2003 and 2004, NIOSH found a link between diacetyl and Popcorn Lung among hundreds of workers at six Midwestern popcorn factories. In April 2007, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that food flavoring factory and popcorn plant workers were at risk for the disease. Since the link between the disease and diacetyl has been established, hundreds of food industry workers have filed Popcorn Lung lawsuits. This year, OSHA cited Natural Flavors Inc. for violations involving the use of diacetyl and for failing to take “the necessary steps to properly assess exposure and protect its employees, said Law360.

The chemical styrene has been associated with bronchiolitis obliterans and the disease has been seen in six boat builders who prepared fiberglass with styrene resins. Another man was diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans after brief exposure to smoke from burning polystyrene home insulation during a home improvement project. The National Institute of Health (NIH) indicates a number of other chemicals associated with the dangerous lung disease including nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ammonia, hydrogen fluoride, phosgene, hydrogen bromide, hydrogen chloride, methyl isocyanate, and hydrogen sulfide according to Law360.

In one previous case involving exposure to diacetyl and bronchiolitis obliterans, a Baltimore man was awarded $814,500 following allegations that he developed Popcorn Lung after breathing in the chemical on his job. Prior to that, a man who worked at a Flavorchem Corp. plant in the Chicago area was awarded $30 million in a Popcorn Lung lawsuit. And, prior to that, a Popcorn Lung victim was awarded $20 million in 2004. The man worked at the former Jasper Popcorn Co. plant.

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