After receiving a confidential request for a health hazard evaluation from some employees at the Mars Petcare plant west of Joplin, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health sent a team to the plant to do a walk-through visit.
In their request, the employees cited health concerns that included respiratory illness, gastrointestinal illness and allergy symptoms.
As part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NIOSH is responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for the prevention of work-related illnesses. The walk-through visit took place in December 2012. The company closed the plant last year before NIOSH could do a subsequent medical survey of workers at the plant.
According to a report released last week about that visit, the team found evidence of airborne dust in the mill rooms and during other operations in the plant’s manufacture of dry pet food.
The company’s record for mold sampling, the team found, showed that airborne mold concentrations exceeded the measurement range of the mold sampler on multiple days at various locations in the plant.
The team also found that one of the pet food ingredients detected had the potential to release “diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione into the air under certain circumstances.”
In 2000, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and NIOSH conducted an investigation of a microwave popcorn plant in Jasper. Nine former workers had been diagnosed with a rare, severe lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans. The disease was linked to the use of diacetyl in food flavorings.
The NIOSH team said it was planning to return to the Mars Petcare plant in August 2013 to do a medical survey to assess the respiratory health of workers because of “our concerns for possible occupational lung disease. The survey was canceled due to plant closure.”
The company announced in June 2013 that the plant was closing.
Eight former workers at the plant filed a lawsuit against the company in August 2013, alleging exposure to a fumigant that they claim has stricken them with occupational diseases. They say the fumigant — phosphine gas — caused injuries to their eyes, lungs, respiratory systems and internal organs. They allege that the fumigant was not cleared from rail cars entering the plant west of Joplin at 1983 State Line Road.
Julie Lawless, a spokeswoman for Mars Petcare, was asked in an email from the Globe on Monday: Did Mars close the plant before the evaluation could expose unsafe working conditions in the plant?
Said Lawless: “The decision to close our Joplin manufacturing plant in June was not related to the CDC’s report in any way. In fact, we worked with OSHA and NIOSH representatives while they performed on-site evaluations in Joplin, and can confirm all results were within federal regulatory standards, ensuring the health and safety of our associates and the pets we feed.
“We made the difficult decision to close the facility in Joplin based on the changing marketplace and customer sourcing decisions.”
The plant closure affected 121 workers.
The NIOSH report does not mention the Mars Petcare plant by name, but Lawless confirmed that “the report is based on the National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOSH) investigation at our former manufacturing facility in Joplin, Mo.”
The workers who filed the lawsuit are being represented by Dennis Egan, with the Popham Law Firm, Kansas City. He could not be reached for comment on Monday. A spokesman for the firm, who said he was familiar with the case, said the firm had received a copy of the NIOSH report. He said it now is aware of the potential release of diacetyl at the Mars plant, and how the chemical had adversely affected workers at the popcorn manufacturing plant in Jasper.
The lawsuit was filed in Jasper County Circuit Court. No trial date has been set. The suit seeks unspecified actual and punitive damages.
The plaintiffs are Lonnie Boyd, Scott Gordon and Buddy Zimmerman, all of Baxter Springs, Kan.; Bill Anderson and Tracy Milton, both of Galena, Kan.; Carol Clark and Mark Cravener, both of Joplin; and Scott Whittington, of Neosho.
MARS PETCARE US, which has 13 manufacturing plants across the country, supplies products for private label brands.