In January 2016, federal agencies in the US who are responsible for health issued warnings and workplace safety recommendations relating to coffee processing and diacetyl and 2, 3-pentanedione. The substances are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) produced during coffee processing that are associated with the lung disease obliterative bronchiolitis (sometimes known as ‘popcorn lung’).
As first highlighted in the January 2016 issue of C&CI, concerns have been expressed about the link between diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione and obliterative bronchiolitis, which can be fatal. A paper published in Toxicology Reports in 2015 suggested that roasting and grinding coffee could expose workers to levels of diacetyl that exceed recommended short-term occupational exposure levels.
As reported in the January 2016 issue of C&CI, diacetyl is found in flavouring added to products in the food industry but is also now known to form naturally, during the roasting and grinding process. It has been linked to illness in workers at plants where microwave popcorn is produced, and more than 1,000 lawsuits have been filed with awards and settlements exceeding millions of dollars, causing the food industry to move away from the use of synthetic diacetyl. In a person affected by popcorn lung disease the airways become scarred and constricted, leading to symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing.
Now, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has called for more research to be conducted into how coffee roasting, grinding and storage could, potentially, affect the health of employees in the coffee industry. NIOSH’s decision to act came after scientific reports documented by it and the CDC involving a large coffee production facility, including a study published in American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
In a 25 January 2016 blog, NIOSH researchers reiterated concerns that coffee workers could be exposed to the chemicals and cited the case of a number of workers at a coffee processing facility who suffered from the condition. Subsequent research showed elevated levels of diacetyl and 2, 3-pentanedione in the air.
“NIOSH research finds that workers at coffee processing facilities may be at risk,” said the blog. As it noted, although previous cases of the lung disease were associated with use of the chemicals as additives, diacetyl and 2, 3-pentanedione are also naturally produced when coffee beans are roasted. Grinding roasted coffee beans produces a greater surface area for the off-gassing of these and other chemicals and coffee roasting facilities package newly roasted coffee in bags fitted with one-way valves or in permeable bags to allow for off-gassing. Alternatively, newly roasted coffee is placed in containers and allowed to off-gas, which can contribute to worker exposures.
For more information see the March 2016 issue of Coffee & Cocoa International.