The meat wrapper’s struggle

Deborah Rodgers, 62, grocery-store meat wrapper

Deborah Rodgers and her husband Thomas in the mid-1990s with a goddaughter. What looks like jewelry around Deborah’s neck is actually a tracheotomy tube, inserted to help her breathe. Courtesy of Deborah Rodgers.

Just the flu, the emergency-room doctor said. But Deborah Rodgers kept feeling sick — a place-specific sort of sick.

“When I was home, I was all right,” she said, “but when I came back to work, I had hoarseness in my throat.”

Going home eventually stopped working its magic. Hoarseness turned to severe laryngitis, and then the Detroit woman’s lungs started failing her. She’d developed asthma from inhaling plastic fumes during her years of wrapping meat at grocery stores — a condition so extreme that she’s had three emergency tracheotomies to help her breathe.

By 1996, at age 44, she no longer could work.

Job-triggered respiratory distress isn’t unusual. Nearly 2 million people in 22 states have asthma caused or worsened by work, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimated this year.

There’s a name for Rodgers’ specific ailment: meat wrappers’ asthma. She worked as a meat wrapper for two decades but had never heard the term before her diagnosis. She suspects that some with the condition don’t know what they have — doctors struggled to pinpoint her problem until one referred her to an occupational-disease specialist.

Rodgers cut plastic with a hot wire, and the heat is “what liberates the fumes,” said that specialist, Dr. Michael R. Harbut, a clinical professor of internal medicine at Wayne State University. Good ventilation can help, he noted, but Rodgers says she worked in a back room with no system to remove the fumes. They built up to the point that “you would think it was a smoke party” going on in there, she said.

She left grocery-store work in 1995, but her exposure triggered a heightened sensitivity to chemicals that still bedevils her. A small whiff can set off dangerous bronchospasms, in which the airways “clamp down,” Harbut said.

“She got sick wrapping up the meat, but it proliferated, if you will, so even small amounts of car exhaust or gasoline or cigarette smoke triggered the same response,” he said. “It’s sort of like if you fall on the sidewalk and scrape your arm: It hurts pretty badly, but then if you take alcohol or iodine on the wound, it hurts badly again, even though it’s a different [substance] than the sidewalk. … The same thing goes on inside the lung.”

After wrapping meat and before winning approval for federal disability payments in 1996, Rodgers tried jobs in two different fields. But she couldn’t handle the paint smell while inspecting cars for scratches or the dust at a shoe shop. She even had attacks in Harbut’s office, despite his ban on smoking and perfumes. He thinks she might have died during the worst years if not for her family’s support and expertise. Her daughter, Felicia James, became a respiratory therapist and nurse after Rodgers fell ill.

Steroids eventually brought some relief. But that came at a cost. Rodgers, 62, developed diabetes and congestive heart failure, conditions that can be triggered by steroid medications.

Even now, she must be cautious about where she goes. She can’t afford more odor-triggered attacks.

“I stay home a lot,” she said. When she does venture out, she takes her husband or her grandchildren to be safe. “They are extremely overprotective with me.”