Hacking and gasping, Irma Ortiz could cart her groceries only so far before she'd catch other shoppers glaring at her.Last week two labor unions -- the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Teamsters -- along with 41 occupational health scientists, petitioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for a standard to protect the thousands of American workers who may be exposed to diacetyl, the deadly butter-flavoring chemical that is destrying workers' lungs.
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.
Ortiz and Herrera were two of the affected workers that Sacramento Bee writer Chris Bowman encountered in their investigation of the problem. Several of the factories that the Bee writers visited looked relatively clean adn safe.
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.In order to get a handle on the problem, CalOSHA has entered into a controversial arrangement with the flavorings industry:
Their experience also exposes serious disconnects in job safety surveillance and enforcement that allow workers with little or no knowledge of the potential dangers to slip through the safety net and lose most of their capacity to breathe, according to interviews with several health experts and regulators and a review of Cal-OSHA inspection records on flavoring plants in Southern California.
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."
Industry doctors in California began looking for that evidence a year ago by screening workers. Companies later struck a deal with Cal-OSHA to continue evaluating employees and to conduct their own safety inspections -- in exchange for avoiding visits from agency enforcers and possible citations. The catch was, the companies would then have to share the results with regulators, who would follow up on-site to make sure that the plants were safe.And some companies have a rather suspicious history:
Some public health experts question whether regulators should be satisfied with information that comes secondhand from an industry with a financial stake in the outcome.
"It's terrific that industry wants to play a role in solving the problem, but it's the responsibility of regulators to ensure that employers provide a safe workplace," said David Michaels, who has studied the Midwestern popcorn workers disease as a public health professor at George Washington University.
An industry-paid doctor, Michaels said, no matter how professional, has an inherent conflict of interest that could taint the process.
"It's not a question of how honest you are, or how good you are," Michaels said. "It's that the financial relationship clouds your judgment. And Cal-OSHA is not there to watch the data being collected."
Mission Flavors provided Herrera with a breathing mask that filtered out chemical vapors, but, apparently, with no instruction, according to Cal-OSHA records of its 1,050-hour investigation of the company.And, of course there's the same old story of why we need regulations -- and strong enforcement -- instead of just trusting industry to "do the right thing:
"He thought it inhibited his breathing toward the end of his employment, and thought it was safer not to wear it," an inspector noted after interviewing Herrera.
Mission Flavors also failed to tell authorities about Herrera, who left on medical disability and was hospitalized "due to his illness from diacetyl," Cal-OSHA records show. The agency instead found out through Harber.
Cal-OSHA fined Mission Flavors $45,575 in January 2005 for several violations, including "failure to report illness." Moreover, it found that Herrera "became ill because employer failed to implement proper controls and respiratory equipment."
The company is appealing the enforcement action. Its president, Patrick Imburgia, could not be reached for comment.
Herrera, meanwhile, is suing diacetyl manufacturers. He has lost 70 percent of his breathing capacity, Harber said.
Diacetyl's potent punch was no secret to its manufacturers.The result:
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.
"Harmful. Sore throat, coughing; may be absorbed," the report states under the heading, "Human Health Effects Data, Known Effects of Acute Exposure" for inhalation. "High concentrations may cause irritation of respiratory tract; capable of producing systemic toxicity."
The diacetyl "ingredient data sheet" had taken on a different look by 2001, the year the industry first learned of the cluster of popcorn worker cases in the Midwest. Under the same heading, the new report states, "Not Found" for both ingestion and inhalation.
Hallagan said the industry had not yet gotten around to updating the data sheet, using a "place-keeper" to fill in the blanks.
And the "place-keeper" went by the term "Not Found."
To this day, the manufacturers' Material Safety Data Sheet on diacetyl does not mention bronchiolitis obliterans among the potential hazards.
Ortiz worked with four or five others in a room the size of a two-car garage -- with no ventilation system, no vapor-tight goggles and -- for years -- no vapor mask.By the time Ortiz was diagnosed with Bronchiolitis obliterans, she has lost 80% of her breathing capacity and needed a double-lung transplant.
As a mixer, Ortiz got the brunt of the fumes. She routinely poured the pungent chemical solutions by hand into a giant electric blender.
"When I pour the liquids into the funnel, you can smell the fumes," Ortiz said. "They were always there. There is no way to take the fumes out, because we only have one door … that's it."
Less than a month into her job, Ortiz began to complain about constant irritation in her eyes. A company doctor said she had developed photophobia -- an usually strong sensitivity to light. Ortiz noticed that her co-workers in the mixing room also had red eyes.
More Popcorn Workers Lung stories here.