Tasting vs. Breathing - Investigative Report
By the time Irma Ortiz discovered she had been breathing toxic fumes on her job as a mixer at Carmi Flavors near Los Angeles, she had lost at least 70 percent of her lung capacity. Ortiz, 44, a nonsmoker who used to lift 50-pound bags routinely, now finds walking so difficult she spends most of her time indoors. Image Credit: Sacramento Bee/Hector Amezcua
When one goes to work in the general foods preparation marketplace, one doesn't expect that they would be working in an environment that is hazardous to one's health. Not so, according to an investigative report released by the Sacramento Bee.
It turns out that working in the food additives manufacturing environment, specifically with additives designed to enhance taste, one can severely compromise their lungs and diminish the capacity to process air to the bloodstream by as much as 80%.
The chemical that has been traced as the culprit is known as diacetyl and the precise number of workers already suffering respiratory effects from exposure this agent is unknown.
Excerpts from the Sacramento Bee -
Investigative Report: Flavoring agent destroys lungs
Two workers need transplants; threat could be widespread
By Chris Bowman -- Bee Staff Writer (Bee researcher Sheila A. Kern contributed to this report) - Published 12:01 am PDT Sunday, July 30, 2006 - Story appeared on Page A1 of The Bee
LOS ANGELES -- Hacking and gasping, Irma Ortiz could cart her groceries only so far before she'd catch other shoppers glaring at her.
Mortified, she'd abandon her cart on the spot and bolt for the door.
Frank Herrera could gun his dirt bike only so far before choking on the rush of air. Go. Stop. Go. Stop. Exasperated, he gave up riding.
Ortiz, 44, and Herrera, 34, are odd candidates for lung transplants, being nonsmokers and having considerable youth on their side.
How they lost 70 to 80 percent of their breathing capacity is no less astonishing. They acquired the same rare, lung-ravaging disease from breathing the same chemicals on the same type of job.
The two weren't working in a chemical or pesticide plant. Nor in a weapons plant. They didn't metal-plate, fumigate, degrease, demolish, smelt or weld.
They made, of all things, artificial food flavorings.
Harmless as that seems, two big labor unions that champion ironworkers and meat cutters are now fighting for the workers who whip up piña colada, butterscotch and other flavors that sell America's snack foods. Just last week, 40 job health experts joined the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers in urging the Bush administration to issue an emergency order restricting worker exposure to a widely used butter flavoring -- a chemical called diacetyl.
The lung disease is as bad as its name suggests: bronchiolitis obliterans. It's a condition that literally obliterates the bronchioles -- the lungs' tiniest airways -- resulting in drastically reduced breathing capacity.
Ortiz and Herrera are the first Californians known by state health officials to have developed the disease from working in a flavoring factory, most likely from inhaling diacetyl's powerful fumes, the health investigators said.
But the search for victims has only just begun.
Neither OSHA, the federal Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, nor Cal-OSHA, its state counterpart, has set limits for worker exposure to diacetyl.
In California, state health department staff and Cal-OSHA regulators are expanding their investigation beyond the two plants where Ortiz and Herrera worked to the estimated 28 other flavoring companies statewide.
Last week, state officials enlisted the help of physicians at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in testing the breathing capacity of current and former flavoring workers, beginning with the Los Angeles-area plant where Ortiz worked.
Some of the same NIOSH doctors found a strong link between diacetyl and the lung disease a few years ago among workers at microwave popcorn factories in the Midwest. The disease permanently disabled dozens of popcorn workers and killed at least three, according to the doctors.
The flavoring industry's largest trade association also assumed a leading role in the California investigation. The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association recently arranged for its respiratory disease experts at the National Jewish Medical Center in Denver to evaluate workers and inspect operations at companies.
Consumers who prepare or eat frozen meals, pastries, candies, coffees and other foods containing these additives are not at risk, doctors say. That's because the chemical concentrations in the final products are much lower than those found in flavorings and snack food plants.
Without proper protections, workers who make the flavor mixes in batches of 50 to 5,000 pounds can inhale highly toxic fumes as they pour chemical liquids into huge blenders.
The level of worker protection in the flavoring business varies from company to company as with other industries where job safety is largely self-policed.
By all appearances, the factory appeared to be a model of industrial hygiene, with workers fully suited in protective gear, with meticulous storage, handling and labeling of hazardous chemicals, and worker safety training that goes beyond the law.
"This plant is typical of those in our association," said John Hallagan, the flavor association's chief spokesman and attorney.
Yet the stories of Ortiz and Herrera provide fresh and powerful evidence that some of the estimated 3,700 flavoring production workers nationwide continue to be exposed to highly toxic fumes.
Few of the flavoring workers are unionized. Many of the estimated hundreds in California are immigrants like Ortiz and Herrera, and primarily speak Spanish.
The two worked 60 miles apart in Southern California, which hosts most of the flavoring factories on the West Coast -- Herrera at Mission Flavors & Fragrances Inc. in Orange County, and Ortiz at Carmi Flavor and Fragrance Co. near Los Angeles.
"They never said nothing to us about the chemicals there, the kinds of dangers or give us a warning like, you know, 'This is bad for you guys, protect yourselves better,' " Ortiz said of her former employer. "They never say nothing to us like that."
Breathing the toxic fumes can drastically lower breathing capacity in a matter of months. The vapors inflame the bronchioles, crucial airways branching like twigs at the ends of the respiratory tree where oxygen enters the blood. Scar tissue builds up in the inflamed bronchioles, shrinking or completely blocking the tiny air tubes.
Diacetyl's potent punch was no secret to its manufacturers.
At least one of them, the German giant BASF, had performed experiments in the 1970s showing diacetyl fumes to be extraordinarily effective at killing lab rats.
"That was a big surprise to everybody," said the flavor industry's Hallagan. His trade group did not learn of the internal study until October 2001.
But the flavoring group apparently did know as early as 1985 that breathing high concentrations of diacetyl posed a breathing hazard -- to humans -- according to the association's "ingredient data sheet" on the chemical.
Ortiz -- a nonsmoker and a one-time robust worker -- has lost 80 percent of her breathing capacity.
"Before I used to be more healthy, but not no more. I gave all my strength to Carmi, to the company. I leave all my strength there."
The disease is irreversible. And it could worsen over time.
Already, doctors have deemed Ortiz eligible for a double-lung transplant. She plans to add her name to the waiting list in August.
If Ortiz undergoes the operation, at best she could resume an active life for several years. At worst, she could suffer a known complication of lung transplants:
Bronchiolitis obliterans -- all over again.
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