Last year, Tanu Vatuvei was awarded $2.6 million in a lawsuit against Citrus and Allied Essences Ltd., claiming they were responsible for his prolonged exposure to diacetyl that led to the development of bronchiolitis obliterans.
Bronchiolitis obliterans, better known as “popcorn lung” for the eight workers at a popcorn plant who were diagnosed with the disease after prolonged exposure in the early 2000s, is a serious lung disease in which the smallest airways of the lungs become obstructed by scar tissue. The only treatment is lung transplant.
The disease has been heavily linked to diacetyl, a flavoring additive used in foods to mimic a buttery or creamy flavor. It has been found in microwave popcorn, flavored coffee, and e-cigarettes. The risk has been found to be much higher when the chemical is heated before inhalation.
At popcorn processing plants, the chemical is added to hot oil. At coffee roasting facilities, it is the off-gassing of roasted beans that pose the greatest threat. With vaping, the e-liquids that contain diacetyl are vaporized through heating elements.
Tanu Vatuvei worked with diacetyl on a daily basis for 10 years at Mission Flavors & Fragrances, Inc., a flavor manufacturing plant in Orange County, Calif. By the time Vatuvei was only 34 years old, he had lost 60 percent of his lung function.
Most of the diacetyl used by Mission Flavors & Fragrances was supplied by Citrus and Allied Essences, Ltd. They were aware of the danger of diacetyl inhalation, but didn’t warn Vatuvei or his employer of the risk, his lawsuit alleged.
“Tanu did nothing wrong, he simply went to work, day in and day out, without complaint, and for that, the defendants robbed him of a normal life by exposing him to toxic chemicals without his knowledge,” said Vatuvei’s trial attorney.
The jury sided with Tanu Vatuvei, awarding him with a $2.6 million verdict against Citrus, finding the company knew about the serious health effects of inhaling diacetyl vapors and failed to warn Vatuvei.