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Is Coffee Lung the New Popcorn Lung?


Has our obsession with a great cup of coffee put coffee roasting plant workers at risk for a severe lung disease?

According to the CDC, diacetyl is released during the roasting and grinding of coffee. Originally thought to be isolated to flavored coffees, it now appears that even the grinding and packaging of unflavored coffee puts workers at risk of “popcorn lung.”

Last year, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) investigators published their findings regarding a health hazard evaluation at a coffee processing facility that resulted in five former coffee plant workers developing bronchiolitis obliterans, also referred to as “popcorn lung.” The workers developed popcorn lung as a result of breathing in workplace air containing high levels of the deadly chemicals in the flavoring, grinding and packaging rooms of the plant.


Can Coffee Give you Lung Disease?

A decade ago researchers linked Bronchiolitis Obliterans to flavoring manufacturing workers, and specifically exposure to diacetyl in the popcorn industry. Popcorn lung lawsuits were successfully litigated on behalf of workers in the popcorn industry who developed a debilitating lung disease that often required a lung transplant. As a result of the media attention around these popcorn lung lawsuits, this disease is often still referred to as popcorn lung.

But the term “popcorn lung” is deceiving. Diacetyl is used as a butter-like substitute in many foods and flavors without warning since it is often referred to as “natural flavoring” without giving specifics of what makes up the natural flavoring. Industries commonly known to use diacetyl in their products include tortilla manufacturers, bakeries, pet food manufacturers, vaping liquids for E-cigarettes, popcorn factories and coffee roasters, amongst many other food and flavoring manufacturers.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NCBI), those who work in coffee roasting plants may be at risk for severe lung problems that can now be referred to as coffee lung. Bronchiolitis Obliterans, a diagnosis predominantly found in workers at flavor plants and popcorn manufacturers, has now been found in workers at coffee processing facilities.

Sadly popcorn lung lawyers are now talking to individuals working in the coffee roasting industry and we expect an increase in coffee lung lawsuits is soon to follow.


Does My Home Brewed Coffee Put Me At Risk?

If you’re at home grinding beans or brewing a pot of coffee you probably don’t have much to worry about. Elevated levels of diacetyl are generally reserved for workplace environments that routinely work with diacetyl (2,3-butanedione) or butter flavorings containing diacetyl such as coffee roasting facilities, tortilla factories, popcorn factories and other flavoring manufacturers.


Diacetyl Warnings – A Step Forward for Workers

In 2013, the CDC analyzed two patients exposed to diacetyl while working at a coffee processing facility in Texas. These two individuals worked in a small coffee-processing facility between 2008 and 2012 and both presented symptoms that worsened steadily over the years. Doctors and pulmonologists misdiagnosed these two coffee workers for years, which likely lead to the exposure and injury of many other workers exposed to these same chemicals.

In November 2015, NIOSH followed up the CDC’s study of these two patients with an article about the health hazards found at this same facility. As a result, the CDC took steps toward getting information out to the public by setting up a coffee processing web page.

U.S. health agencies have since published specific warnings and workplace safety recommendations for the coffee industry related to diacetyl and acetyl propionyl (2,3-pentanedione). The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, recently published the standards and recommendations, which call for increased research into how coffee roasting, grinding and storage is potentially affecting the health of employees in coffee production environments.

While these recent efforts by a few government agencies is a start, protecting workers from the dangers of diacetyl exposure is still in the hands of the manufacturers profiting at the expense of worker’s health. Identification of diacetyl and early identification of symptoms from exposure is imperative in proper medical treatment of popcorn lung.


Popcorn Lung Misdiagnosed

One of the biggest challenges in getting workers the medical treatment they need is an early diagnosis of bronchiolitis obliterans, or popcorn lung.

Popcorn lung is often misdiagnosed as asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, COPD, or lung cancer. Early signs that should be watched for include:

  • Eye irritation
  • Fatigue
  • Crackling in the lungs
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath on exertion
  • Wheezing


Popcorn Lung Lawsuits for Coffee Workers

Recent articles and media attention about the dangers of coffee lung are helping to get the word out, but we expect that attention will reach new heights when juries and the courts listen to evidence. Just as popcorn lung lawsuits brought attention to the life-altering injuries experienced by popcorn workers, coffee lung lawyers are now filing lawsuits on behalf of coffee workers with similar injuries.

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