Ronald Kuiper died last week, just one day before a jury decided that a maker of chemical butter flavoring owed him $7.5 million for destruction of his lungs.
Kuiper was 64 when I interviewed him five years ago, just before doctors confirmed what he told me he already knew – that he had bronchiolitis obliterans, which is also called “popcorn lung.”
Obviously, the jury agreed that it was diacetyl that was killing him when he testified briefly before them.
In the 90s, inhalation of this synthetic butter flavoring had been blamed for destroying the lungs of hundreds of workers in microwave popcorn plants throughout the Midwest. Included was American Pop Corn, the plant in Sioux City, Iowa, where Kuiper worked as a butter-flavor mixer.
The verdict, which took jurors six days to reach, was against Givaudan Flavors Corp. of Cincinnati. Earlier, Kuiper and his wife had also sued three other mega-flavor makers – International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc., Flavors of North America, Inc. and Sensient Flavors, Inc.
I’m told they paid the Kuipers without going to trial.
Kuiper contacted me after he read articles I’d written in Baltimore for The Sun on sick workers I’d found in flavoring, food processing and other plants across the country where diacetyl is used.
The illness was in its early stages when Kuiper and I spoke, but he was already having respiratory problems and paused often to catch his breath. Even back then he said it felt like he was suffocating, breathing through a plastic bag.
He told me he was glad I’d reported on what diacetyl was doing to other innocent workers but that he couldn’t understand why the government – OSHA and the Food and Drug Administration – hadn’t tested the safety of the chemical flavoring, which is used worldwide.
There was a minor media frenzy after reports that consumers had contracted bronchiolitis obliterans from inhaling fumes from microwave popcorn they prepared at home – first, on one man and then another who allegedly had the irreversible lung disease.
I’m told a third case is about to go public and that two more consumers, one on each coast, are undergoing medical screening for the same symptoms. All told their physicians that they ate at least four to eight bags of popcorn a day.
America is the world’s largest producer of microwave popcorn, and most of the manufacturers say they have removed the diacetyl from the products. But that’s not enough for unions representing food service workers and cooks. They, along with dozens of scientists, have asked OSHA for emergency safeguards and exposure limits. Congress ordered protective action from OSHA.
Little has happened.
Kuiper died before getting his wish. Neither OSHA nor the FDA have tested the safety of the flavoring. And neither agency restricts or monitors its use even though food scientists estimate that today more than 14,000 individual products use diacetyl for butter flavor.
Kuiper’s lawyer, Kenneth McClain, has settled scores of suits for other popcorn workers for verdicts as high as $20 million. McClain told the Des Moines Register that more than 300 other diacetyl cases are pending nationwide.
Public health specialists believe if the government fails to control the use of diacetyl, lawyers will be busy for years to come because lives have been destroyed or ended.
For more details, check out the public health wizards gathered around the pump handle at http://thepumphandle.wordpress.com/popcorndiacetyl/
For update, twitter asinvestigates.