By Raquel Rutledge of the Journal Sentinel
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted a warning to people who work in the coffee processing business: Their occupations could be exposing them to dangerous levels of chemicals known to cause lung damage.
The notice is directed at workers in facilities that roast, grind or flavor coffee, cautioning that two compounds tied to serious lung disease —diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione — are formed naturally through roasting unflavored coffee and are released during roasting and grinding. It also informs employers of the need to test the air and, depending on results, take measures to mitigate exposure.
The federal agency added the coffee processing industry to its list of occupations that put workers at risk for flavor-related lung disease, calling the information "of interest and importance" to those in the coffee business.
The notice comes amid the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's ongoing "Gasping for Action" investigation, which has brought to light serious lung damage to workers grinding and roasting flavored coffee. It has also uncovered, through groundbreaking testing, that workers are being exposed to high levels of the chemicals in roasting facilities that don't use added flavors.
Workers who had been exposed to similar levels in microwave popcorn plants suffered serious lung disease.
One former Milwaukee roaster said the federal notice was overdue.
"Anybody that works in that environment should be made aware of the hazards and risks involved," said Chris O'Neal, who roasted coffee at what is now Colectivo on N. Humboldt Blvd. for several years ending in 2012. "Sure, someone might say there's inherent risk in anything you do, but not necessarily being exposed to compounds that destroy your lungs."
O'Neal, a 35-year-old elite runner who has never smoked, wonders if the severe asthma he has recently been diagnosed with could be tied to his years roasting coffee. Or if the diagnosis of asthma is wrong altogether.
Diacetyl has been linked with a rare, sometimes deadly, lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans.
"Sometimes workers with obliterative bronchiolitis are initially misdiagnosed with asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema or pneumonia; or their symptoms are attributed to smoking," the CDC notice states.
It also notes the importance of doctors considering the possibility of disease related to chemical exposure, and says "the symptoms often have a gradual onset but can occur suddenly."
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the research arm of the CDC, published the information Tuesday.
The agency has centered much of its previous work on synthetic diacetyl commonly used in the food industry to add a buttery flavor to everything from popcorn and chips to candy and ice cream. The chemical has been deemed safe to eat in trace amounts but has been shown to damage lungs when inhaled.
The chemical drew attention in the early 2000s as clusters of workers in microwave popcorn plants and flavoring factories fell ill. At least five people died and hundreds of workers were injured.
In 2009, The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, tasked with overseeing the safety of the nation's workforce, grappled with developing exposure guidelines and adopting a regulation but failed. The chemical remains unregulated.
The Journal Sentinel investigation examined the case of five Texas coffee workers who contracted bronchiolitis obliterans. One of the five was placed on the waiting list for a lung transplant. The cases were identified when a local pulmonologist familiar with diacetyl connected their symptoms to their workplace.
The workers blamed their illnesses on diacetyl in the flavoring used to make hazelnut coffee. They settled a lawsuit with the flavor manufacturer last year.
Little attention was paid at the time to the naturally occurring levels of the chemicals that waft into the air when unflavored coffee is roasted and ground. Few, if any, studies had been published quantifying the levels. The Journal's Sentinel's testing was among the first of its kind.
The news organization hired an industrial hygienist to sample the air at two Wisconsin roasteries that agreed to the testing — Madison-based Just Coffee Cooperative and Valentine Coffee on Milwaukee's west side — and found levels above NIOSH's proposed recommendations. Workers grinding coffee had the highest levels of exposure, topping suggested safety limits by nearly four times, according to some measurements.
Surprised by the findings, the co-founders of Just Coffee requested a full health hazard evaluation from NIOSH. A team from the agency spent nearly a week in July gathering data from the processing facility. NIOSH plans to release results this month.
"We encourage all roasting companies to take this seriously," said Just Coffee co-founder Mike Moon. "We've received inquiries from roasters all over the country about our experience with NIOSH and our approach to this issue.
"We support and trust the work of NIOSH regarding coffee roasting and will do our best to comply, because we feel it is in the best interest of our employees."
Four other roasting companies around southeastern Wisconsin — Anodyne, Colectivo, Stone Creek and Sheboygan-based Torke — declined to allow the Journal Sentinel to sample the air around their workers.
Colectivo sent a memo to workers after the Journal Sentinel's initial inquiries that downplayed the issue and said the company would re-examine all of its safety protocols. Officials would not say whether they would test for diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione or if so, whether they would share the results.
Representatives from Colectivo and the three other roasteries did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment for this story.
Two months ago, NIOSH called concerns about diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione in coffee an "emerging issue" and said the agency didn't "have anything related to best practices in that industry yet." The agency's new coffee processing notice underscores the concerns and calls for employers to take precautions.
An official with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents about 3,000 coffee workers nationwide and in Canada, said the posting will serve as a "wake-up call" to employers who might deny diacetyl is a problem in their industry.
"It's a good step for the public," said Azita Mashayekhi, an industrial hygienist for the union. "We need all sides to get involved."
Mashayekhi said she is alerting local union representatives so they can inform their members about the safety issues.
The coffee processing industry employs more than 600,000 people nationwide, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Coffee industry representatives have been reluctant to acknowledge the dangers the chemicals pose to their workers.
Joseph DeRupo, spokesman for the National Coffee Association trade group, said he will inform members about the new notice and the offer by NIOSH to conduct free health hazard evaluations in those coffee facilities that request it. The agency already has a handful of such evaluations underway.
"It should be standard protocol in every workplace that you test the air for all the potential hazardous chemicals," DeRupo said.
In addition to NIOSH, OSHA has a consultation program that allows businesses to have the agency come in and assess the hazards for free. The identity of the company can remain confidential, but the company must agree to fix any problems discovered by inspectors. Each state runs its own program.
Steve Strebel, director of the Wisconsin Occupational Health Laboratory, said his lab has already analyzed a few samples from coffee roasting companies around the country who have taken advantage of OSHA's program in recent weeks. Wisconsin's operation handles OSHA's consultation tests for 45 states.
The results: levels that exceeded NIOSH's safety recommendations, in at least one case, by 14 times.
"We got some positive hits," Strebel said.
To read past stories in the Gasping for Action investigation into the dangers of the chemical diacetyl in coffee production and in e-cigarettes, go to jsonline.com/gaspingforaction
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health offers free health hazard evaluations.
Phone: (800) CDC-INFO (800-232-4636)
The national Occupational Safety and Health Administration also provides free consultation through state programs.
Phone: Wisconsin businesses can call (800) 947-0553 (safety-related requests) or (608) 226-5240 (health-related requests)
Online: Wisconsin businesses can find more information at slh.wisc.edu/occupational/wiscon/making-a-request/. Companies outside Wisconsin can find more information about programs in their state at https://www.osha.gov/dcsp/smallbusiness/consult.html.
Raquel Rutledge is an investigative reporter. Her work has been recognized with numerous national awards, including a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for exposing rampant fraud in Wisconsin's child-care subsidy program.