Food Flavoring Workers Exposed to Toxins: Link to Lung Disease After Prolonged Exposure


According to the U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC), inhaling certain flavoring chemicals in the workplace may lead to severe lung disease. Artificial flavorings such as diacetyl can found in popcorn, flavored coffees, and other food products and have been linked to bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome, also known as “popcorn lung.”

Food flavorings are chemical mixtures of natural and artificial ingredients added to food and beverages in the production process, possibly exposing plant workers to high dosages for long periods of time. Depending on the flavoring and the process, popcorn or coffee production  and food flavoring workers may be exposed to hazardous flavorings like diacetyl in the form of vapors, dusts, or fumes.

Exposure to diacetyl is associated with bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome in chemical process workers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the flavoring industry have warned workers about diacetyl because of the danger of inhaling this chemical and developing respiratory diseases.

Joe Lyon is a highly-rated Ohio personal injury lawyer representing plaintiffs nationwide in a wide variety of consumer product liability and workplace injury claims.


Disease Clusters at Workplaces Indicate that Food Flavoring Workers at Risk

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has reviewed several complaints from employees at food production facilities and reported the following in a study of lung diseases associated with diacetyl and bronchiolitis obliterans in food flavoring workers:

1. Four men and four women who worked at a single microwave popcorn packaging plant developed fixed obstructive airways disease. Two workers at the same plant had lung biopsy findings consistent with bronchiolitis obliterans. The cases of lung disease occurred over several years. The employees had worked as mixers of flavoring mixtures, or had packaged microwave popcorn near the area where oil and flavorings were mixed.
Five of the victims had never smoked or smoked very little. Initial symptoms included cough, shortness of breath, and wheezing which presented gradually between 5 months and 5 years after starting to work at the plant. Most of the subjects had severe disease by the time they were diagnosed by lung specialists, and four were placed on lung transplant lists. Their coughs diminished months after leaving the toxic workplace.

2. Workers with greater past exposure to flavoring vapors were significantly more likely to have abnormal lung function than those with less exposure. Quality control workers who popped about 100 bags of microwave popcorn each shift in a room with little ventilation showed higher rates of abnormal lung function. Many food flavoring workers also reported developing skin problems at the plant.

3. Two previously healthy workers at a plant producing flavorings for the baking industry developed severe fixed airways obstruction within months of starting work at the plant. Each subject worked in an area where liquid and powdered flavorings were combined in large mixers. Both developed shortness of breath on exertion and persistent coughs.

4. A 54-year-old mixer of oil and butter flavorings at a microwave popcorn plant developed a chronic cough, which worsened once he worked around a new butter flavoring mixture. Five food flavoring workers exposed to flavoring vapors in the plant developed chemical eye burns after using the new flavoring mixture.

5. A NIOSH investigation at yet another microwave popcorn plant found an obstructive pattern on lung function testing in 11 of 41 production workers—over twice the expected amount. In this plant, the mixing and holding tanks for heated oil and butter flavoring were located near packaging lines and where most of the production workers were positioned during a shift.

6. A 37 year-old at a microwave popcorn plant was found to have severe fixed airways obstruction after working as a flavoring mixer for 7 years. He developed progressive shortness of breath on exertion starting in his fourth year as a flavoring mixer. A NIOSH investigation found an excess of abnormal lung tests among current food flavoring workers who had worked as mixers.


Symptoms of Bronchiolitis Obliterans

Bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome (BOS) usually causes a persistent cough and shortness of breath as soon as two weeks after toxic fume exposure. BOS has been called “Popcorn Lung” because it is highly-linked to food flavoring workers who inhale artificial butter flavoring in microwave popcorn production facilities.

The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has reported that exposure to diacetyl causes bronchiolitis obliterans, and other chronic lung diseases, such as hypersensitivity pneumonitis, granulomatosus disease, emphysema, asthma and other lung diseases. Some symptoms of associated lung diseases may include the following:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • A bluish appearance to the skin
  • Crackling or rattling sounds heard in the lungs
  • Fatigue
  • Ribs that appear sunken during attempts to inhale
  • Quickened breathing at rest
  • Whooping cough

If you or a loved one has developed a respiratory illness after working at a food production facility, and have questions about the legal remedies available to improve quality of life and medical care, contact The Lyon Firm at (800) 513-2403. You will speak directly with Mr. Lyon, and he will help you answer critical questions regarding food flavoring.