By David Michaels

We’ve been writing for the past few months about U.S. regulatory agencies’ failure to take meaningful action on diacetyl, a toxic component of artificial butter flavor, despite having been aware of its risks since at least the start of this decade. Now, mounting evidence suggests that some flavor manufacturers have known about diacetyl’s association with severe lung disease and failed to take appropriate action for even longer – since the early 1990s, when diacetyl started killing workers in flavor plants. Disabled workers are currently suing flavor manufacturers over their failure to alert purchasers of artificial butter flavoring to the substance’s dangers.

James McNair has an important article in the Cincinnati Enquirer on the diacetyl disaster at the flavorings plant in Carthage, OH, owned by the Swiss multinational company Givaudan. Three workers at the plant have died from bronchiolitis obliterans. Evidently, the director of environmental health and safety at the plant (formerly known as Tastemaker Corp.), who was hired after the first worker death, thought the plant couldn’t be operated safely. So he was fired:

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.

McNair traces industry knowledge of the problem to the 1980s:

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.”

According to McNair, workers at several factories who developed bronchiolitis obliterans have sued Givaudan, and now there are also suits by Givaudan workers, trying to break the workers compensation bar against suing your own employer:

It was during Hochstrasser’s tenure at Givaudan that the flavorings industry learned more about the effect of butter fumes on workers….. By the time [University of Cincinnati healt specialists brought in by Givaudan] 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…. It denies that exposure to diacetyl or acetaldehyde can cause respiratory system damage or shortness of breath.

This is a true tragedy. It appears that even the death of a worker, along with warnings from their own director of environmental health and safety, weren’t sufficient for a manufacturer to abandon an extremely toxic chemical, or even to warn customers (like the popcorn manufacturers) of its potential effects. Now, after dozens of workers have been disabled and several have died, the media are focussed on deadly diacetyl. Change in these factories will finally happen, years too late.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

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