Tort Law

Breathing 'Butter' Vapors Leads to Lawsuits

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Even some of those allegedly affected with the problem could hardly believe it: Breathing in vapors from butter flavoring commonly used on microwave popcorn can cause a debilitating lung disease.

But now that diacetyl—a chemical used to create an artificial butter taste in the flavoring—has been identified, many believe, as the clear culprit causing “popcorn lung,” companies in the food industry and members of Congress are scrambling to make changes. Some major manufacturers of microwave popcorn companies “have eliminated or plan to drop the ingredient, while Congress—with the support of the flavoring industry—is looking to reduce the danger in the workplace,” reports the Associated Press in a lengthy feature article. “But the Bush administration, some business groups and others say there isn’t enough scientific evidence to warrant immediate government limits.”

Dr. Allen Parmet, a Kansas City physician, doesn’t agree. Seven years ago, he was put at the forefront of the issue when a lawyer asked him to review medical records of workers with highly unusual lung problems. All worked at the same microwave popcorn plant in Jasper, Mo. It took Parmat less than an hour to pinpoint the potential cause—their employment.

“It was ‘holy smokes!’ ” he recounts. “I’ve got eight or nine cases here in a group of 200 people in a town of 1,000. Mentally, I’ve made this leap—that’s an epidemic.”

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health sent investigators to the plant, who had determined by 2001 that butter flavorings were the culprit.

Meanwhile, Keith Campbell, a former worker in an Ohio microwave popcorn plant, is among the hundreds of workers who have filed litigation that puts tens of millions of dollars at issue, AP reports. One attorney in Missouri, Ken McClain, has more than 500 claims pending against companies that use or manufacture butter flavoring.

Campbell, who won an undisclosed settlement, wonders why the problem wasn’t identified and resolved sooner. “I got a new truck and new home, but I paid a high price for it,” he says. “They tell me I’ve got the lungs of an 80 year old. If I was 80, I’d be pretty perky. But when you’re 50, it stinks.”

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