Current Litigation

Diacetyl-Induced Lung Disease

February 2015 - $2.6 million verdict awarded to man unknowingly exposed to Diacetyl at work. THL continues to talk to workers exposed to the toxic chemical and diagnosed with life altering lung diseases.

Diacetyl is the most dangerous substance ever exposed to workers and consumers. Exposure to it leaves workers and consumers with a severe, disabling and potentially lethal lung disorder. Yet, many people are working, unprotected, with it everyday and consumers are risking their health using products containing diacetyl in their homes.

Without the ability to make an informed decision about the products used in our food, worker and consumer health has been placed solely in the hands of profit motivated corporations.

What is Diacetyl?

Diacetyl is a compound that gives butter its characteristic taste. It is a yellowish liquid in its pure form and is a normal by-product of fermentation. In the food flavoring industry, it is usually mixed with other ingredients to produce butter flavor or other flavors in a variety of food products.

Often, the end food product is marked as containing “natural or artificial flavorings” but there is no current requirement that the company indicate when a product contains diacetyl.

Although many organizations have submitted petitions asking for a change in treatment for diacetyl, currently the FDA designates diacetyl as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) for manufacturing and consumption.

Health Effects of Exposure to Diacetyl

  • Lungs – Symptoms include a dry cough, shortness of breath when using extra energy, and wheezing. The symptoms can start gradually, or severe symptoms can occur suddenly. The symptoms continue even away from work. Asthma medicines are not effective.
  • Eyes, nose and throat – Diacetyl vapors can sting or burn the eyes. The vapors can cause your nose and throat to burn and feel sore.
    Skin – Diacetyl can irritate the skin. It can cause a rash with dryness, redness, flaking and cracking of the skin.
  • The progression of the disorder often takes place over a period of months to years, and frequently results in progressive respiratory tract symptoms and irreversible losses in ventilatory lung function.
  • Alzheimers Disease - New research links diacetyl with Alzheimers disease

Potential Misdiagnosis of Diacetyl-Induced Lung Disease

Chronic lung diseases are hard to diagnose. If you believe you have been exposed to diacetyl in your work-place, be sure to let your doctor know so that your lung function can be tested. Early detection is critical.

The following diagnoses show similar symptoms, and diacetyl-induced lung disease is often misdiagnosed as one of the following diseases:

  • Asthma
  • Allergies
  • Emphysema
  • Chronic Bronchitis
  • COPD
  • Lung Cancer
  • MesotheliomaChronic Pneumonia

“Popcorn Lung”

Workers in several factories that manufacture artificial butter flavoring have been diagnosed with “bronchiolitis obliterans,” which is the technical term for this rare and serious disease of the lungs. The cases found have been mainly in young, healthy, non-smoking males. There are no known cures for this lung disease except for lung transplantation.

Several authorities have called the disease “Popcorn Lung” in response to two lawsuits filed against microwave popcorn plants in Missouri. Both juries found that these workers sustained permanent lung-injuries while on the job in these plants and the workers were awarded damages for their injuries.

Although this fatal lung disease has been termed “popcorn lung,” injuries are being found in workers at plants manufacturing all other type of butter flavored products – including tortillas, food spray, corn syrup, candy, frozen foods and all kinds of snacks and pastries.

Consumer use of Diacetyl

It is obvious that using high levels of diacetyl in manufacturing plants can be toxic to workers, but, what about consumers? More specifically, what is the effect of consumers eating and/or cooking with diacetyl?

In September 2007, Dr. Cecile Rose, respiratory disease specialist informed the FDA that “Popcorn lung” can in fact affect more than just factory workers. She noted that Mr. Wayne Watson was exposed to diacetyl induced bronchiolitis obliterans as a result of popping popcorn in his home, several times a day over several years. Following that consumer case, it was found that an employee of Blockbuster video became sick and is now waiting for a lung transplant as a result of popping 30 bags of microwave popcorn in a small back room for five years at Blockbuster.

While the above examples may sound extreme, the effect of diacetyl exposure on consumers is unknown. The FDA is currently evaluating the recent information associating inhalation of the food additive diacetyl with lung disease, and is reportedly considering the safety and regulatory issues it raises.

Diacetyl Substitutes?

As a result of lawsuits and the negative press surrounding “popcorn lung,” many companies have been using substitutes for diacetyl. Diacetyl substitutes have given these companies the marketing advantage of labeling products as “diacetyl-free.” Furthermore, Diacetyl, and its current substitutes, are normal by-products of fermentation, leading many companies to market products containing diacetyl as “natural.”

Evidence has now surfaced that these so-called substitutes for diacetyl are actually just another form of diacetyl and may also cause this lethal lung disease.

Diacetyl Timeline

1977:  Study showed that diacetyl applied to the skin of rabbits resulted in lung destruction (Baltimore Sun, 2006).

1985:  NIOSH investigates the occurrence of cases resembling bronchilitis obliterans in workers of a company that mixed liquid flavorings with cornstarch for the baking industry (Kanwal, Richard, MD MPH).
Consultants for the Flavor and Extract Manufacturing Association produced a
data sheet that said that breathing diacetyl is harmful to the respiratory tract and is “capable of producing system toxicity” (Baltimore Sun, 2006).

1992-2000: Eight workers of the Gilster-Mary Lee popcorn plant in Jasper, Missouri, developed a lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare disease in which lung tissue is permanently destroyed (NIOSH Fact Sheet, 2002).

2000: The outbreak of lung disease is identified in the Jasper, Mo. popcorn factory while other outbreaks were identified in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and Indiana (Baltimore Sun, 2006).
Missouri Department of Health asks NIOSH to determine if these cases of lung disease were due to an exposure at the plant in Missouri.
NIOSH found that workers at the Gilster-Mary Lee popcorn plant in Jasper, Mo. who spent more time in areas with higher air concentrations of diacetyl were more likely to have abnormal airflow in their breathing tests.  Workers reported cough and shortness of breath 2.6 times as often as would be expected based on US population health data.  Higher exposures over time were associated with lower airflow (NIOSH Fact Sheet, 2002). 
NIOSH made recommendations for improvements to the ventilation of the Missouri plant which the company followed (NIOSH Fact Sheet, 2002).

2001: German chemical company shares animal study results conducted in 1993 that showed that rats subjected to diacetyl suffered significant lung injury and many died (Baltimore Sun, 2006).

2002: NIOSH presents its 2000 findings to OSHA, state health departments, and the flavoring industry.  Findings also published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
OSHA’s scientists begin studying diacetyl, urging their leaders to take broader action (Baltimore Sun, 2006).
Flavor and Extract Manufacturing Association downplays diacetyl hazard in comments to NIOSH (Baltimore Sun, 2006).

2004: Flavor and Extract Manufacturing issues its report on precautions in use of flavorings.
California OSHA officials seek NIOSH’s help after Los Angeles worker is diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans.

2005:  California OSHA officials let flavorings industry-paid consultant investigate workers’ health in the flavorings plants (Baltimore Sun, 2006).

2006: A lawsuit filed in February, charged that the Flavor and Extract Manufacturing Association “conspired with the other defendants to fraudulently conceal the true facts regarding the health consequences of the butter flavoring…” (Baltimore Sun, 2006).
In July 2006, The International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Untied Food and Commercial Workers petitioned the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to promulgate an emergency temporary standard to protect workers from the deleterious health effects of inhaling diacetyl vapors.

2007: Dr. Cecile Rose, pulmonary specialist at Denver’s National Jewish Medical and Research Center, in a letter, warned federal agencies or regulators that consumers, not just factory workers, are in danger of contracting bronchiolitis obliterans from fumes produced by microwaving popcorn containing diacetyl. Popcorn Lung, Coming to Your Kitchen? The FDA Doesn’t Want You to Know. (9/4/2007)

(9/24/2007) FEMA recommended reducing diacetyl in butter flavorings

2009: Letter from NIOSH Director John Howard to OSHA Chief David Michaels in which Director Howard reports that the “new, safer, butter substitutes” used in popcorn and other foods are, in some cases, at least as toxic as what they replaced. John Hallagan, general counsel for the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, said his organization has told anyone who would listen that diacetyl substitutes are actually just another form of diacetyl. 12/23/2009

 Diacetyl and other flavoring chemicals have been linked to nearly 200 cases of lung disease among factory workers who make or use the chemicals.  It has killed at least three (Baltimore Sun, 2006).
More than a $100 million has been awarded in jury verdicts and paid in settlements in cases brought by former popcorn plant workers against companies supplying or making the butter flavoring (Baltimore Sun, 2006).

August 2010 - A Chicago Jury  has awarded $30 million to a chemical-flavoring plant worker disabled by exposure to diacetyl.

August 2012 - A new study of beta-amyloid protein clumps in the brain indicate an increased risk of developing Alzheimers disease with real world occupational exposure to diacetyl.

There are currently two bills in the California Legislature to ban the use of diacetyl.

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Diacetyl is a dangerous substance used in many food products and it is rarely indicated as an ingredient.  Exposure to diacetyl has been known to leave workers and consumers with a lethal lung disease.  If you believe that you have been exposed to diacetyl, contact us today for a free consultation on your legal claim.  


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