‘My stepping stone broke right under my foot’

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Ricardo Corona, 46, food-flavoring production worker

Ricardo Corona developed an irreversible lung disease after less than six months working at a flavor manufacturing facility. One of the most toxic chemicals he was exposed to, diacetyl, is a main ingredient in butter flavoring. Courtesy of Ricardo Corona

Ricardo Corona would come home smelling of chocolate, vanilla or strawberries. He spent his days working for Carmi Flavor & Fragrance Co. in Los Angeles County, mixing pungently scented powders and liquids to create food flavorings.

“You get a little headache when you go in there,” Corona said. His skin would itch through his latex gloves, and his eyes grew red behind safety goggles as he measured and stirred. When he asked if the substances could be harmful, his supervisor reassured him that a paper mask would protect his lungs: “As long as we had the mask, we were good.”

Corona started the job in February 2006. By May, he was seeing a doctor for severe breathing problems. He was prescribed medicine for bronchitis, but his condition deteriorated. He no longer had the energy to play with his two children or exercise at the gym.

“I would go to my mom’s house, and I couldn’t move from the couch,” Corona said. He would rest until it was time to go to work again.

One of the main chemicals Corona handled was diacetyl, a common ingredient in butter flavorings and a known cause of lung disease. Diacetyl, like many substances used in flavoring manufacturing, does not have a workplace exposure limit set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Corona’s coughing and wheezing worsened. He and some of his co-workers, also suffering, didn’t have the energy to finish tasks like grocery shopping. “We would just leave our carts there and have to go home, or somebody had to pick us up, because we couldn’t breathe anymore,” he said.

Corona and two other workers at the facility sued various diacetyl manufacturers and suppliers, eventually settling out of court. Carmi Flavors was not named in the suit.

Diacetyl’s harmful effects were known years before Corona encountered the chemical. In 2000, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health investigated a popcorn manufacturing plant after eight of its workers became ill. In 2003, NIOSH issued an alert saying that breathing diacetyl and other flavoring chemicals may lead to severe lung disease.

The president and CEO of Carmi Flavors, Eliot Carmi, said the company stopped using diacetyl in 2007. “We had no knowledge of its potential, and we eliminated it when we found out,” he said.

Corona had taken the job at Carmi as a “stepping stone” to a career in a different field or higher-paying work. In June, he had his eyes on a job with the California Department of Transportation. But to get it he had to pass a physical examination, and his lungs held him back.

“My stepping stone broke right under my foot,” he said.

In July 2006, just weeks after Corona’s 38th birthday, doctors diagnosed a progressive and irreversible disease called bronchiolitis obliterans. The smallest airways of his lungs were scarred, blocking the movement of air. He was put on a waiting list for a lung transplant.

Over the next two years, his sister took him to and from hospitals. Sometimes he required round-the-clock oxygen from a tank. Once, he passed out in a restroom and his rescuers had to break down a door to get to him.

He was scared, angry and depressed.

But his illness indirectly brought him one gift. During a hospital visit, he ran into a former girlfriend, and they rekindled their relationship. Shortly after he received a lung transplant in 2009, the two were married.

At his home in Whittier, California, the 46-year-old Corona takes more than 60 pills a day. Declared 99-percent disabled, he hasn’t held a job since he worked at Carmi but has seen improvement in his health.

“There’s a lot of things I can’t do, but there’s a lot of things I’m grateful to do,” he said.

Exercising. Playing with his granddaughter. And simply walking and breathing — two functions he couldn’t take for granted just a few years ago.