Federal safety researchers are warning workers who roast, grind, package, and serve coffee about the presence of diacetyl and other potentially deadly chemicals that occur in extremely high concentrations as a natural part of the coffee roasting and grinding processes.
Prompted by an investigative report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel detailing how coffee industry workers could be in danger of developing potentially deadly lung disorders, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started testing the air inside a dozen coffee roasting facilities across the country. Its findings have put the coffee industry on high alert.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted its first study at Madison, Wisconsin-based Just Coffee last July, testing air space in a number of settings and situations. They found extremely high concentrations of diacetyl and its equally toxic molecular cousin 2,3 pentanedione throughout the facility, which doesn’t use artificial flavorings in its coffee.
Inhaling diacetyl, which can be used as a synthetic flavoring agent to mimic the taste of butter, can promote the deadly lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans. Better known as “popcorn lung” for its association with several microwave popcorn plant workers who developed the disease in the early 2000s, bronchiolitis obliterans clogs small air pathways in the lungs and forms scar tissue that diminishes breathing. It is curable only by lung transplant.
NIOSH Director John Howard told the Journal Sentinel that the presence of these two toxic chemicals in the air of coffee plants has become a priority for the agency.
“There’s a large number of workers and the harm is really severe,” he said.
Tests conducted by an industrial hygienist hired by the Journal Sentinel in Just Coffee and another Wisconsin coffee roaster found that diacetyl levels exceed the government’s maximum safety level by four times.
Concentrations of the toxic chemicals in the plant varied by location, activity, equipment used, ventilation, and even time of year. Results showed that Just Coffee workers were typically exposed to 7 parts of diacetyl per billion – far surpassing the CDC’s limit of 5 parts per billion.
Diacetyl concentrations inside storage bins containing roasted beans were the highest, with 7,000 parts per billion. That finding prompted the CDC to explicitly warn workers to refrain from sticking their heads inside containers or hover in their presence too long.
As if those findings weren’t enough, researchers also confirmed that the storage bins contained high levels of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, which in high enough concentrations can lead to serious illness and death.
The Journal Sentinel reports that the coffee roasters involved in the government studies are proactively working with the health and safety authorities to help them develop regulations and standards that will protect workers from all of the harmful gases emitted by the coffee.
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel