Recent National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) findings suggest that people working at coffee processing facilities could be at risk for developing obliterative bronchiolitis (OB). The study, “Respiratory morbidity in a coffee processing workplace with sentinel obliterative bronchiolitis cases,” was published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
OB is an irreversible form of lung disease in which the small airway branches become narrowed, restricting air circulation throughout the airways, resulting in severe shortness of breath and a dry cough.
The disease can be caused by a variety of factors, including exposure to diacetyl-based chemicals. These volatile organic molecules with intensely buttery flavor are utilized in processed foods like microwave popcorn, bakery mixes, and alcoholic beverages, where they have already been linked to the respiratory disease. Mainly produced through industrial processes, these chemicals can also be released naturally when coffee beans are roasted or when they are ground.
New NIOSH findings suggest the presence of high concentrations of diacetyl-based chemicals in the air at coffee facilities through the flavoring chemicals added to roasted coffee beans, the grinding/packaging of unflavored roasted coffee, and the storage of roasted coffee.
According to a news release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), researchers also found that workers examined at a coffee facility showed respiratory symptoms, like severe shortness of breath and slower exhalation of air from their lungs, consistent with undiagnosed lung disease. Investigations are ongoing at other facilities.
The results encouraged NIOSH to develop a coffee processing webpage with interim recommendations on health hazard evaluations at coffee facilities. Current recommendations include: 1) air sampling to evaluate levels of chemicals, 2) identification of exposure concentration/time limit, 3) workplace intervention through engineering control/ventilation, 4) wearing of appropriate fit-tested respirators, and 5) establishment of a medical surveillance program.
In 2015, NIOSH published a best practices document describing exposure monitoring and work interventions, including engineering controls and best practices.
People concerned with exposure to diacetyl-based chemicals may contact NIOSH through the Health Hazard Evaluation Program. Current or former workers at food-flavoring facilities who experience progressive shortness of breath should be screened for OB, and if the condition is confirmed, immediate measures be taken to limit exposure and disease progression.