Coffee workers at potential risk for lung disease, NIOSH warns

Agency developed reference website to help protect workers

Posted February 1, 2016

On January 25, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released a report warning that workers at coffee processing facilities may be at risk for obliterative bronchiolitis.

Obliterative bronchiolitis is an irreversible form of lung disease in which the smallest airways in the lung (the bronchioles) become scarred and constricted, blocking the movement of air. The disease was previously identified in flavoring manufacturing workers and microwave popcorn workers who were occupationally exposed to diacetyl (2,3-butanedione) or butter flavorings containing diacetyl.

Diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione (a diacetyl substitute) are volatile organic compounds known as alpha-diketones. Diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione are produced commercially by chemical manufacturers as ingredients in flavorings that are added to some food products (e.g., microwave popcorn, bakery mixes, flavored coffee).

According to NIOSH, diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione are also naturally produced when coffee beans are roasted. Grinding roasted coffee beans produces greater surface area for the off-gassing of these and other chemicals. 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.

The agency says that in coffee processing facilities, air sampling for diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione can help determine if control measures are needed to reduce airborne concentrations of alpha-diketones.

NIOSH has ongoing health hazard evaluations at a number of coffee processing facilities and has developed a coffee processing webpage with interim recommendations which may change to reflect additional knowledge as the agency learns more over the coming year.

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