Baltimore County plant worker awarded $814,500 for 'popcorn lung'

Man who worked with butter flavoring in local plant says he has rare lung disease

May 31, 2011|By Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun

A Baltimore County man won an $814,500 judgment in Baltimore County Circuit Court after claiming he contracted a rare lung disease known as "popcorn lung" from breathing a chemical used to make food taste buttery.

A jury awarded Brian Hallock $5.4 million last month from Polarome International Inc., a New Jersey-based chemical manufacturer and distributor. But a judge said Friday she would reduce the amount because Maryland has a cap on non-economic damages, Hallock's attorney confirmed Tuesday.

Kenneth B. McClain, the lawyer, advised Hallock not to speak publicly about the award because he is challenging the cap, set at $350,000. Polarome's lawyers said they couldn't comment on an ongoing case.

McClain said Hallock was first exposed to the chemical diacetyl in 1981 at his job at spice maker McCormick & Co. in Hunt Valley, which was not named in the suit. Hallock worked making various food flavorings and food products.

He went to be tested for bronchiolitis obliterans in 2006 after reading about it in The Baltimore Sun, and his doctors concluded he had the disease. Now in his 50s, he has severely depleted lung capacity and plans to retire within five years, McClain said.

The case comes more than a decade after the first cases of the disease were discovered at a microwave popcorn plant in Jasper, Mo. State health officials notified the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which established a link between diacetyl and the lung disease, according to Dr. David Weissman, director of the division of respiratory disease studies.

Scientists later discovered that diacetyl was a threat in large doses, whether it was made chemically or naturally by fermenting bacteria. Many suppliers turned to substitutes, but they, too, may cause disease, Weissman said. The evolving information has meant no federal regulations on use, though Weissman said there is a team working on recommendations and they are expected in the fall.

In the meantime, the agency has put out an alert about diacetyl, including safe handling methods. California also has implemented its own regulations after workers in plants there became sick. And an industry trade group also has warned plants about the dangers.

Weissman, however, said he doesn't believe much diacetyl is still in use. And he said those who consume some diacetyl will not become sick.

"There is a clear relationship to dose," he said. "You'd need a large exposure, more than a normal consumer would get."

The government says cases of severe lung disease in plant workers are relatively rare. Symptoms include persistent dry cough, wheezing, shortness of breath upon exertion and fixed airways obstruction. It can lead to a lung transplant or death.

The disease is often mistaken for asthma, bronchitis, emphysema and pneumonia — which became a defense in the case. Experts for the defense said Hallock has asthma, and those for the plaintiff said it was the lung disease.

McClain said no one else at McCormick has filed a lawsuit against the chemical distributor Polarome, which became another angle for the defense, which argued that there were multiple cases at other plants. He doesn't believe McCormick still uses diacetyl. Officials there could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

McClain suggested others could be sick but fear losing their jobs if they complain. Some, he said, don't know about the disease and haven't been tested. So far, he said, he's settled or won cases for hundreds of disease sufferers across the country. He said the makers and distributors of the chemical have not been properly warned of the hazards.

"You can be quite functional for a long time, and you don't know you have a lung deficit until you look," McClain said. "People think they are just getting older. But when there is publicity, people look."

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