For a coffee drinker, few scents are more enticing than the aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans. However, for workers in coffee roasting and packaging plants, the aroma may create conditions that could lead to a degenerative lung disease that could cause their deaths.
Roasted coffee produces two chemicals, diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione, that provides coffee with its buttery richness, but can also cause a disease known as obliterative bronchiolitis, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes as “irreversible lung disease.”
The chemicals permanently damage the bronchioles in the lungs, leading to coughs and shortness of breath. The damage can be so severe that it can lead to the need for a lung transplant or death.
A decade or so ago, this disease was observed in workers in microwave popcorn plants causing popcorn lung and killing workers. A recent newspaper investigation has now found similar conditions at coffee roasters, and workers who roast, grind and package coffee are at risk.
CDC is warning workers
An industrial hygienist measured the levels of these chemicals in one roasting plant and found that the concentrations were up to four times the limits for exposure. The CDC is working on tests they ran in multiple roasters around the nation, but they have created a webpage that warns workers of dangers posed by the chemicals.
The CDC is recommending that worker exposure to these chemicals be limited and that they were respirators to minimize inhalation of the chemicals. It also recommends that processes like roasting and grinding be performed in areas that have adequate ventilation or are closed off from workers.
The CDC and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) suggest that real time monitoring is necessary in areas where the beans are processed to ensure that the safeguards are functioning properly. Workers should also be informed of the risks and properly trained in safe handling procedures.