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Evidence suggests that coffee industry workers could are at a higher risk of developing deadly, irreversible coffee worker lung disease, caused by dangerous diacetyl exposure because of diacetyl coffee vapors. Has our obsession with a great cup of coffee put coffee roasting plant workers at risk for severe lung disease?
If you have ever worked at a coffee manufacturing plant, you may be at risk of diacetyl exposure which can cause a deadly, irreversible lung disease known as obliterative bronchiolitis. The disease is “an inflammatory condition that affects the lung’s tiniest airways, the bronchioles.” Regular exposure to diacetyl and alpha-diketones chemicals causes the bronchioles to be injured, scarred, constricted, and smaller in size. Some workers have developed such severe, disabling lung disease that they have been placed on lung transplant waiting lists.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines “diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione (a diacetyl substitute) as volatile organic compounds known as alpha-diketones.” Occupational chemical exposures to diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione are produced during the flavoring process of common products such as microwave popcorn, bakery mixes, chewing gum, pet food, other food products, and even vaping or Juuling. However, the chemicals are produced naturally during the coffee bean roasting process, posing an even greater risk.
The chemicals are incredibly deadly with devastating, lasting effects.
Obliterative bronchiolitis is not unique to the coffee manufacturing industry and goes by many different names, depending on the flavoring manufacturing industry. In the microwave popcorn industry, is also referred to as popcorn lung. Manufacturers who use flavoring are putting their workers at risk of developing deadly lung disease. While referred to by many names, the outcome is detrimental for each individual diagnosed, no matter the industry.
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.
Until 2015, it was unknown that natural diacetyl vapors are created when roasting and grinding coffee. When coffee beans are roasted, two chemicals, diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione, form and are released into the air in greater concentrations than when the beans are ground. Levels have also been found to build when the beans are held in storage bins. The coffee bean fumes of caffeinated coffee, while determined not to be dangerous if ingested in small amounts such as for individuals drinking coffee, have been found to be deadly when inhaled.
Many workers with obliterative bronchiolitis have no idea that they have it or that they got it from their workplace, likely because their symptoms do not improve when they go home or over the weekend.
Signs and symptoms of the coffee lung include:
The coffee industry has been urged to implement medical programs to monitor employees who could possibly develop lung disease from diacetyl coffee vapors.
The National Institute of Safety and Health (NIOSH) has proposed a recommendation that, on a daily basis, workers not be exposed to more than 5 parts per billion of either synthetic or naturally occurring diacetyl coffee vapors for fear of worker’s developing lung disease. Those familiar with diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione believe that workers’ exposures to short amounts of high levels of these chemicals are also of concern, and caution workers to avoid sticking their heads in or hovering over the bins in which coffee beans are stored, as diacetyl concentrations found there have reached as high as 7,000 parts per billion.
In 2013, physicians from the University Medical Center diagnosed five individuals who had worked at a coffee processing facility with obliterative bronchiolitis. Taking on the investigation, a probe by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel exposed how diacetyl endangers the health of coffee workers which prompted federal investigators to conduct tests at approximately one dozen facilities across the U.S to verify the claims.
Furthermore, another report issued by the CDC in 2017 detailed the agency’s findings from a study of workers at a mid-sized coffee roastery. The study found that the roastery workers suffered from wheezing in their chests at four times the expected rate of comparable demographics of the U.S. population.
The CDC study was conducted at Just Coffee Cooperative of Madison, Wisconsin. Of the 16 workers screened for the study, more than a third showed upper-respiratory symptoms with a work-related pattern in many employees. The report went on to say that the workers affected had a “four-fold excess of wheeze and abnormalities in lung function” as compared to a similar demographic group. Beyond wheezing, Just Coffee Cooperative workers reported experiencing mucous membrane symptoms, which is likely a reaction to coffee dust exposure.
This is the first report issued of a bureaucratic agency’s medical analysis of workers in a coffee production facility that does not add flavors to its coffee.
All previous studies have been conducted at production facilities that use flavor additives. These studies have found that workers were exposed to the chemical compound diacetyl, a synthetic compound used to create dairy flavoring in coffee. While the FDA approved diacetyl’s use for ingestion in minimal amounts as safe, inhalation of the vaporized form of the compound is known to cause serious lung disease – most commonly, coffee worker lung disease.
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.
Following the study, the CDC made recommendations that Just Coffee Cooperative take extra precautionary measures to minimize workers’ exposure to diacetyl, including implementing additional engineering controls. Those controls include vacuuming rather than sweeping, providing masts and respirators to workers for certain jobs, improving the facility’s ventilation system, and continually running the facility’s overhead exhaust fan. Those recommendations also extend to all other coffee manufacturers to minimize occupational exposures to diacetyl.
The CDC report also included a statement warning for all coffee production workers involved with roasting, opening bins and scooping beans, grinding, and packaging the product, especially since the study found that workers tasked with weighing and packaging coffee were exposed to the highest levels of diacetyl.
Normal coffee consumers are not at risk, according to the report.
“Recognizing the dangerous conditions of these facilities is a good first step. Now the CDC needs to create stricter regulations on the coffee production industry to ensure that the work environment is safe,” said Jake Plattenberger, head of TorHoerman Law’s diacetyl litigation team.
The CDC is currently conducting a health hazard evaluation at 18 other coffee facilities around the U.S. If the data correlates to the CDC’s recent report, the finding from this research could lead to increased safety standards for coffee production workers.
Diagnosis of obliterative bronchiolitis, or coffee worker lung disease, is based on the symptoms mentioned above. If a doctor believes an individual may have developed the lung disease or is at risk for lung disease, additional tests will be ordered to support and confirm the diagnosis.
Unfortunately, coffee lung disease is irreversible. However, there are steps that can be taken to slow the progress of the condition and alleviate any painful side effects.
Living with a rare disease is incredibly difficult, but the team at TorHoerman Law would like to help alleviate some of the stress that comes with the diagnosis. Our goal as a law firm is to alleviate the financial burden so you are able to concentrate on your health.
With years of experience, TorHoerman is ready to fight for you. Highly regarded and experienced in diacetyl litigation, we will be there to help you at every step of the way in a coffee lung lawsuit. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Bailey, Rachel L., et al. "NIOSH Science Blog." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 Jan. 2016, blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/2016/01/25/coffee-workers/.
"Bronchiolitis Obliterans." Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/9551/bronchiolitis-obliterans.
"FLAVORINGS-RELATED LUNG DISEASE." The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28 June 2018, www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/flavorings/limits.html.
"Obliterative Bronchiolitis in Workers in a Coffee-Processing Facility - Texas, 2008–2012." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26 Apr. 2013, www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6216a3.htm.
Rutledge, Raquel. "CDC Finds Workers at a Coffee Facility in Wisconsin with Increased Respiratory Symptoms; Abnormal Breathing." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 26 Sept. 2017, www.jsonline.com/story/news/investigations/2017/09/26/cdc-finds-workers-coffee-facility-wisconsin-increased-respiratory-symptoms-abnormal-breathing/699422001/
Rutledge, Raquel. "CDC Warns Coffee Workers of Hazardous Chemicals." WATCHDOG REPORTS|GASPING FOR ACTION | A JOURNAL SENTINEL WATCHDOG UPDATE, Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, 2 Oct. 2015, www.jsonline.com/watchdog/watchdogreports/cdc-warns-coffee-workers-of-hazardous-chemicals-b99588225z1-330424931.html.
Rutledge, Raquel. "Coffee-Bean Fumes Called Hazardous to Workers' Health." The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 7 Apr. 2016, www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/coffee-bean-fumes-deemed-hazardous-to-workers-health/.
Sara, Al-Ghanem, et al. "Bronchiolitis Obliterans Organizing Pneumonia: Pathogenesis, Clinical Features, Imaging, and Therapy Review." Annals of Thoracic Medicine, Medknow Publications, 2008, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2700454/.
Last Modified: May 26th, 2021 @ 10:23 pm
Bronchiolitis Obliterans, also known as Coffee Worker Lung Disease, is an irreversible lung disease caused by the effects of diacetyl exposure. During the coffee roasting process, diacetyl is produced and if individuals are exposed in large quantities, the development of coffee worker lung disease can occur. If you believe you have developed the disease due to exposure at work, contact TorHoerman Law for a free consultation.
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