More Than a Grind: Coffee Roasters May Be Inhaling Toxic Air
Drinking coffee is one thing; breathing the air at processing facilities is another
When it comes to coffee, some people will sacrifice time and money for a good cup of Joe. They’ll go out of their way to visit their favorite coffee shop and pay $5 a cup for fancy brew.
But the people who roast the coffee beans may be sacrificing a lot more: their lungs.
Related: What’s Your Coffee IQ?
That’s because of two volatile organic compounds — diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione — that are released into the air when workers grind the beans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is pushing for increased safety for coffee roasters, who the agency says could be exposed to high levels of these chemicals. The CDC says exposure at those levels could lead to obliterative bronchiolitis, a severe, irreversible lung disease.
If you’ve heard of diacetyl before, it might have been in relation to reports of microwave popcorn workers and workers in the food flavoring industry being sickened and killed by the same lung disease. But in 2012, a pulmonologist in Texas found five cases of severe diacetyl-related lung disease in workers at a local coffee roasting plant, the CDC says.
Coffee manufacturers use the chemicals to make hazelnut and other flavored coffees. And even unflavored coffee, when ground, released chemicals at nearly four times the safety limits, according to air samples tested during an investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The CDC and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently issued new recommended safety measures for coffee roasting companies, including:
- Use medical surveillance to screen employees for respiratory symptoms.
- Have employees wear respirators until the level of chemicals in the workplace is reduced.
- Increase the exhaust and ventilation where grinding and packing take place.
- Advise workers of the health risk.
NIOSH, a research arm of the CDC, is testing air samples from a number of coffee roasting plants across the U.S. Safety recommendations may change in the next year based on the findings, notes the CDC.
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