Coffee Workers Are at Risk of Contracting 'Popcorn Lung'

Here's something to think about over your fair-trade, organic brew.

Do you remember the chemical that made microwave popcorn taste so butttery but which caused serious lung damage to employees in popcorn manufacturing? The disease earned the name "popcorn lung," more formally known as obliterative bronchiolitis. If that sounds like it obliterates the working part of the lung, it is because that is exactly what it does. There is no known cure. Victims of popcorn lung faced shortened lifespans and lung transplantation.

It turns out that the same chemical occurs naturally in coffee, probably accounting for a small part of the incredibly rich aroma we enjoy in a strong cup of java. As was the case for consumers of microwave popcorn, the risk of getting popcorn lung is low for the average coffee consumer. But people working for extended periods where coffee is roasted and ground, or for connoisseurs roasting and grinding for themselves and friends, care is indicated.

The issue came to light after a spike of popcorn lung cases related to a roaster in Texas. The company flavored their coffee with the artificial butter flavoring (diacetyl or alpha-diketones), but subsequent investigation indicated that the workers were exposed to high levels of dangerous chemicals even in the areas where unflavored coffee was handled—especially where the fresh roast was stored before packaging and in the grinding areas where the larger surface area of the freshly ground coffee results in a higher rate of emission.

If you roast or grind fresh roasted coffee for your personal use, be sure to do it only in a well ventilated area. If you roast or grind larger quantities, for a small business for example, you should be aware of the ongoing investigations by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). If you work in the coffee biz and are concerned, talk to your boss about calling NIOSH - they consult for free with small businesses to help them ensure a safe workplace. Call them yourself if your boss won't listen.

We spoke to a representative of one of our local roasters, Peace Coffee, which voluntarily enrolled in the NIOSH program investigating the risks at coffee roasters. He reported that so far, the levels of the harmful chemicals conducted at their facilities were in acceptable ranges—but the investigation continues, and measures will have to be put in place to ensure that the levels stay in the healthy range even after initial studies are completed. If that adds a couple pennies to the price of a cup of coffee, it will be well worth it to ensure that no one involved in delivering that daily pleasure finds out too late that he or she will never be able to breathe freely again.


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