USA: Former Popcorn Plant Workers Battle Respiratory Illnesses

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Joplin Globe

Dustin Smith ran track and played basketball and football when he was a student at Sarcoxie High School four years ago.

So, it didn't occur to the 22-year-old that he might be sick, even when the noisy wheezing in his lungs forced him to stop jogging with friends.

''I just thought I was out of shape,'' Smith said.

He wasn't even concerned when federal and state health officials came to the Jasper popcorn plant last October to test him and other workers after some former workers at the Jasper plant had developed severe respiratory illnesses.

Now, Smith has learned that his lung capacity had been reduced by 50 percent.

That loss came in nine months, and it was the most severe in the plant, Kathleen Kreiss, M.D., said in a handwritten note on Smith's test results. She is a medical officer for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

''You have only half of normal lung function,'' Kreiss wrote. ''We are very alarmed that you are becoming so limited.''

Smith will join 15 other former workers in a class-action lawsuit filed against International Flavors & Fragrances Inc., a New York company that manufactured the flavoring for the popcorn produced at the plant.

The suit contends the flavoring contains additives that damage the respiratory system.

The suit also names a Joplin doctor some workers saw for breathing problems. They contend the doctor should have reported a pattern of health problems among plant workers to state and federal officials.

Plaintiffs in the suit are Rafaela Benavides, Norma Brickey, Mary Ann Goff, Kenneth Moenning, Angela Nally, Ed Pennell, Eric Peoples, Debra Pettyjohn, Linda Redman, Evelyn Standhardt, Reta Taffner, Samantha Taffner, Marge Unruh, Harold Woods and Bart Yowell. Plaintiff's spouses also are part of the action.

The case was filed Sept. 7 in Jasper County Circuit Court. There has not yet been a response from the flavoring manufacturer.

A motion to dismiss will be filed on behalf of Rick Scacewater, the Joplin physician, according to Ron Mitchell, his attorney.

Mitchell said Scacewater did not see or treat all the patients named in the lawsuit.

Those he did see, Mitchell said, ''were given the best possible care. When he couldn't identify the problem, he sent them to the experts, the best places in the country, where they made the determination.''

'Really scared'

Smith, who lives in Alba, did not seek medical treatment until after NIOSH officials announced their findings Sept. 9. He differs from some of his other former co-workers in one respect: The company's workers' compensation insurance is paying for his medical treatment.

''NIOSH reports demonstrate these people were injured at work,'' said attorney Kenneth McClain. ''They've recognized that with Dustin, and we're going before the (workers' compensation) judge to try to get emergency payments and further treatment for other workers.''

Attorneys for the workers were notified Friday that help will be available to some employees who filed claims after Feb. 1, 1999, when Gilster-Mary Lee Corp. bought the plant.

Those workers may be eligible for payment of medical costs and disability payments, based on the results of medical evaluations, according to Amy Powell, an attorney with Humphrey, Farrington & McClain, the firm representing the workers in the class-action lawsuit and workers' compensation actions. She said the decision came from the company that insures Gilster-Mary Lee Corp. Company officials could not be reached for comment.

''This is not an admission of liability, and we're unsure how it might affect those who worked there earlier. But it means help for some workers,'' she said.

Both listed in the class action, Angela Nally and Eric Peoples, both of Carthage, are among at least eight former workers who filed workers' compensation claims more than two years ago. McClain said he hopes that results of the NIOSH investigation will speed results before the workers' compensation judges.

The agency summed up its findings for workers in a health notice passed out Sept. 9.

''There is a work-related cause of lung disease in this plant,'' the notice said. ''We at NIOSH believe the problem is continuing even after the company made changes that we recommended.''

The tests showed that 12 workers had significant declines in pulmonary function between April and August, even after changes to lower chemical and dust levels were made by the company, which is owned by Gilster-Mary Lee Corp. The plant employs about 130 workers.

In addition to those tested this year, eight more people have developed bronchial diseases since 1992. A total of six are on lists for lung transplants, McClain said.

Smith said doctors have told him he does not need a lung transplant.

''But they said if I didn't get out of there, I'd have the lungs of a 90-year-old,'' he said.

Smith said he was ''really scared'' after he found out about his illness. He said he and his wife want a family, and that he wants to be able to look forward to playing with his children.

''I can't work,'' he said. ''That's horrible; it messes with your head. And I can't play with my nephew anymore without running out of breath.''

Delaying the inevitable

Peoples and Nally said their doctors have told them that their lungs now function at 20 percent of capacity. Both are on lists for lung transplants, but they will try to delay that procedure as long as possible.

''It's a relatively new procedure, and once you get the transplant, the life expectancy is just five years,'' he said.

Peoples, 29, started work at the popcorn plant in October 1997, and he had to quit 14 months later because of breathing problems. He, like Smith, worked in packaging, and later in the area where oils, flavorings and colorings were mixed for the microwave popcorn.

Nally worked at the plant in 1994, but never in the mixing area. After eight months, she quit, she said, ''under doctor's orders.''

She called Peoples about three years ago after a conversation among mutual friends revealed that the two had similar illnesses after working at the plant. The two are part of the original group that decided to seek legal help.

''I cried when I found out about Eric, because I kept thinking there should have been something I could have done that would have kept him from getting sick,'' Nally said. ''He's been through a lot more than I have.''

Nally counts herself as lucky because most of her medical costs have been paid by her health insurance through her husband's workplace. Recent changes have increased their expenses, she said.

Earlier, most of Peoples' medical bills were paid by his wife's health plan. Last year, he said the insurance payments stopped, his condition deteriorated and he was hospitalized four times over the winter.

''They started paying again this spring after my doctor wrote them,'' he said.

Nally and Peoples both said they worry that there are former workers out there who are ill but may not be getting treatment. Current workers were tested at the plant, but many former workers did not show up for testing, even though health workers tried to contact them via addresses and telephone numbers provided by the company.

McClain, the plaintiffs' attorney, said he is representing 25 people who are ill, and he has been contacted by other current and former workers.

''We don't know how many more might be out there,'' he said.

A purpose of the class action, he said, is to make sure that everyone who might be injured is protected by whatever ruling is handed down by the court.

AMP Section Name:CorpWatch