A diagnosis of asthma, until it was far too late

Dennis Yatsko loved good popcorn, but making it killed him. The poison that destroyed his lungs was in the heated vapors of butter flavoring he used to produce tons of America's favorite snack for his century-old bar and customers as far as two states away.

Doctors apparently misdiagnosed the disease that destroyed Yatsko's lungs. Now his daughter, Debbie Medvec, fears the same thing might be happening to her."It's where Dad popped and bagged the corn from 2 to 7 each morning," said Dale Yatsko, one of Dennis' eight children, pointing to a 10-foot by 12-foot concrete-block shed, its walls and ceilings stained butter yellow.

"Dennis was always healthy," said Joan, his wife of 44 years, as she stood at the kitchen stove stirring a huge pot of cabbage rolls. "We couldn't figure out why he was coughing all the time and then short of breath."

Yatsko's health failed over six years. For three, he was treated at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Helena, where physicians did not ask what chemicals he might be exposed to, a review of his medical records showed.

"Towards the end, he would gasp like he needed to get every speck of oxygen in the room into his lungs, and he said it was even harder to exhale," Joan said. "They said he had asthma."

By the time a chest specialist in Great Falls began treating him, Yatsko was too ill to qualify for a lung transplant, his wife said. He died at 65 in 1998, just before Christmas.

His family has sued the manufacturers and marketers of the butter flavoring and popping oil, alleging failure to warn of the hazards. The companies have not yet responded to the suit.

Lawyers handling the case obtained a review of his medical records by Dr. David Egilman, a specialist in occupational and internal medicine. Egilman, who earlier in his career was a medical investigator for NIOSH, said Yatsko had bronchiolitis obliterans.

Since her father's death, Debbie Medvec and her husband, Bruce, have been operating the family popcorn business in a different building with greatly improved ventilation.

He has the procedure down pat. Oil into the kettles, then the popcorn, then butter flavoring and salt. As he works, the ventilation system cranks away, pulling a faint yellow vapor from the popping machine. The paper surgical mask that covers his mouth is tinged a darker yellow.

But they might stop popping soon.

Bruce Medvec's arms have broken out in dermatitis, a skin inflammation that can be a symptom of bronchiolitis obliterans. For the past year, Debbie Medvec has been coughing and having a little difficulty breathing.

Asthma, the local doctor told her. But the bronchiodilators he prescribed don't help. That, too, can be an indicator of bronchiolitis obliterans: people who are mistakenly told they have allergies, emphysema or asthma get little or no relief from medications.

The Medvecs contacted the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health at its respiratory laboratory in Morgantown, W.Va.

Earlier this month, one of the agency's senior industrial hygienists and a technician flew to Montana to examine what chemicals were being released when the family prepares popcorn.

"We were so careful," said Debbie Medvec, referring to the strong ventilation and the paper masks they wore.

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