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Regulators fight to assess health risks in local plant: Sensient Flavors files lawsuit to prevent inspection

July 28, 2008

Federal regulators specializing in chronic-disease prevention are attempting to investigate a west-side food additives manufacturing plant. But Sensient Flavors is fighting in federal court in Indianapolis to prevent their inspection.

On July 14, Sensient sued the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sensient Flavors is an Indianapolisbased subsidiary of Sensient Technologies Corp., a publicly traded Milwaukee firm that makes artificial colors, flavors and fragrances used in a variety of mass-produced products-from foods and pharmaceuticals to cosmetics and inkjet printers.

The Indianapolis plant, at 5600 W. Raymond St., produces about 100 specialized chemicals and employs around 200. It's a small part of Sensient Technologies, which has 3,600 employees and $1.2 billion in annual revenue.

Sensient's lawsuit says that dispute began March 19, when an International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 135 representative submitted a formal request for a federal health hazard evaluation.

Documents filed in the litigation say the union is concerned about Sensient's production of a compound called diacetyl.

Often used in margarines to create a buttery taste, diacetyl has become controversial in recent years. NIOSH has an ongoing investigation into allegations that diacetyl can be hazardous when heated and inhaled repeatedly over time.

Workers in some factories who have developed lung disorders that can be treated only by transplant have blamed diacetyl, attracting national attention.

The concerns have spawned a spate of worker lawsuits. A year ago, for instance, eight people who worked at Van Burenbased Weaver Popcorn Co. sued flavor makers and chemical manufacturers, charging their exposure to diacetyl injured their respiratory systems. Sensient initially was a defendant in the case, filed in Marion Circuit Court, but won dismissal in January after using sales records to prove it did not supply Weaver with diacetyl.

Sensient did not respond to IBJ's inquiry about the inspection dispute. NIOSH and Teamsters officials declined to comment.

But the lawsuit makes many details of the scrape public record. In its case, the company points to a series of steps it took in cooperation with regulators, culminating in an initial inspection of the Indianapolis plant May 29-30. During that visit, according to Sensient, four NIOSH inspectors took air samples and interviewed employees.

Just a week later, NIOSH told Sensient it needed a second, more extensive inspection.

"When NIOSH visited Sensient, we were informed by employees that NIOSH was not viewing a normal production day," the agency wrote in a July 8 letter to Sensient. "We did not feel we had a chance to see many processes and conveyed our disappointment with the level of production activity to Sensient management during our closing conference."

The letter goes on to cite concerns about pulmonary abnormalities found in the medical records of some Sensient employees. The letter says NIOSH is investigating the possibility of "chronic disease."

"We have not at this time determined if any of these findings are occupationally related, but are sure that Sensient, as an employer who has a good track record in protecting its employees, will join us in wanting to obtain as much information as quickly as possible," NIOSH wrote.

It then laid out a plan for an extensive second inspection during the week of July 27.

Sensient responded by filing a lawsuit July 14 to try to prevent the second inspection. The suit says Sensient objects to the additional inspection on several grounds, including that NIOSH failed to follow regulatory procedures. Regulators, for instance, failed to get a second written inspection request from the union, according to the suit.

The company complains that its good will could be harmed if the matter is publicized. But most important, Sensient argues that NIOSH didn't turn up enough physical evidence of health problems during its first plant inspection to warrant another.
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