According to the American Lung Association, nearly 11 million workers are exposed in their worksites to substances that cause asthma symptoms. Occupational asthma is the most common occupational lung disease, affecting 15% of adults with asthma.
But asthma is only the tip of the iceberg for many workers. People who work with diacetyl (2,3-Butanedione) or acetyl propionyl (2,3-pentanedione) without adequate protection are at risk for obliterative bronchiolitis, a severe, irreversible obstructive lung disease. Bronchiolitis obliterans is just the medical term for the bronchioles, the smallest airways in the lung, being destroyed. Regular exposure to chemicals like diacetyl causes the bronchioles to be injured, becoming scarred, constricted, and smaller, which is why the patient starts to have more difficulty breathing when they exert themselves. Worse, many workers with obliterative bronchiolitis have no idea that they have the condition, or that their workplace is the cause. Anyone who works with food flavorings or additives without proper airway protection is at risk for permanent lung damage. Even people who don’t work in a food manufacturing plant, but work around food (like grinding large amounts of coffee), can be at risk.
People with obliterative bronchiolitis gradually notice that they have shortness of breath on exertion (like when walking up stairs), a cough without phlegm, and wheezing. Sometimes, they’ll have fever, weight loss, and night sweats. It even causes its own unique form of pneumonia.  Unfortunately, most doctors (including pulmonologists) are not familiar with the disease and so they will diagnose the patient is having asthma, COPD, chronic bronchitis, pneumonia, or emphysema — especially because the symptoms don’t tend to get better when the worker goes home or over the weekend. Consider this WebMD article that says “Generally, if your asthma symptoms are worse on days that you work, improve when you are at home for any length of time (weekends, vacations) and then recur when you return to work, occupational asthma should be considered.”  Similarly, OSHA says that a “key question” for work-related asthma is “Do your symptoms change when you are away from work?” But that’s not the case with obliterative bronchiolitis, which is progressive and which won’t improve when the worker goes home. The symptoms are chronic because the damage to the airways is permanent.
For more than a decade, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has been trying to improve conditions for workers exposed to diacetyl. OSHA issued its own bulletin in 2010, and has a hazard communication guidance. Diacetyl occurs naturally in low concentrations in food like diary, honey, and beer, and because of its buttery taste it is used frequently used in food flavorings. Although the most well-known use is in flavoring for popcorn (hence obliterative bronchiolitis sometimes being called “popcorn lung”), diacetyl is used across the whole spectrum of processed and preprepared food products, from potato and corn chips, to syrups, to desserts, to chocolate, to tracks, and even in basic dairy products like milk, cheese, and butter. Eating diacetyl isn’t a problem, but breathing it in is a problem, and workers who are regularly exposed to diacetyl vapors, sprays, or dust are at risk for developing bronchiolitis obliterans. Unfortunately, many manufacturers responded to the problems with diacetyl by replacing it with acetyl propionyl, a highly similar chemical that has many of the same toxic properties and lung injuries associated with it.
Workers often don’t even know they’re being exposed to diacetyl. Although diacetyl is supposed to be listed on product Material Safety Data Sheets (in section 2, as CAS number 431-03-8), because diacetyl is often used in low quantities, many manufacturers don’t include it. Many times, workers are exposed for years and don’t even know it until an industrial hygenie review or air quality inspection reveals the presence of diacetyl in the air. For years, workers have wondered if their symptoms are caused by pollution, by asthma, by smoking, or by second-hand smoke, when all the while it was diacetyl.
For more about the science behind “popcorn lung” lawsuits, read this blog post of mine. Our lawyers at TorHoerman Law have successfully prosecuted diacetyl lawsuits, including winning a $2.6 million verdict in February 2015 for a man unknowingly exposed to diacetyl at work who developed bronchiolitis obliterans when he was just 34 years old. We’ve handled these cases across the country against all of the major suppliers of diacetyl. If you were diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans or work around food flavorings and have lung disease, please call our lawyers for a confidential, no-obligation consultation, call my office directly at 215-948-2718. Or, use the contact form below.

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