Safeguarding Washington State Baristas

Washington state has long been known for its boutique coffee shops. But very little is known about the health risks of processing coffee for the baristas who work in them.

Recently, coffee processing has been shown to produce a potentially harmful chemical called diacetyl. Diacetyl is the chemical flavoring added to microwave popcorn that, in the early 2000s was associated with high rates of a rare disease known as “popcorn lung” among microwave popcorn producers. Popcorn lung damages the smallest airways of the lungs, interfering with the body’ ability to get oxygen.

Dr. Chris Simpson, a principal investigator with the University of Washington Interdisciplinary Center for Exposures, Diseases, Genomics and Environment (EDGE) explains how the link between diacetyl and coffee was discovered. “Following the clusters of cases with popcorn manufacturers, NIOSH [the Center for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] realized that diacetyl was used in a bunch of other industries, including in the plants that made flavored coffees. To their surprise, they found that, in these plants, lung disease was not restricted to workers that made flavored coffee.” It turns out that the processing of all coffee produces diacetyl.

So far studies of coffee and diacetyl have been restricted to large plants and not small producers, but that is about to change.

With a $121,134 grant from the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries Safety and Health Investment Program Dr. Simpson is launching a one-year study of diacetyl levels in Olympic Crest Coffee Roasters, a boutique coffee shop in Olympia, Washington. Specifically, Dr. Simpson will lead a team that measures levels of diacetyl released during coffee grinding and brewing and tests ventilation options that could reduce exposure for baristas. 

The study comes out of a 2018 pilot study funded by EDGE where levels of diacetyl were measured in small coffee shops in Canada. In all cases, diacetyl levels in the barista areas exceeded the recommended exposure levels created by NIOSH. “That was a surprise,” according to Dr. Simpson. The pilot study also adapted the NIOSH sampling method to make it more sensitive.

Soon Hannah Echt, a graduate student supported by the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health’s (DEOHS) NIOSH-funded Education Research Center, will visit the Olympic Crest Coffee Roasters to suck air samples into solvent tubes that will collect the diacetyl gas to later be separated and quantified by Shar Samy’s DEOHS analytical lab. In the fall, after ventilation devices have been installed in the areas with the highest diacetyl levels, she will return to repeat her sampling.

“Our hope is that we will increase awareness of this problem, define its extent and disseminate an effective control solution,” says Dr. Simpson. “It’s a pleasure to get out in the field to work with small businesses who take pride in what they do and want to do the right thing for their employees.”

Funding and support for this project has been provided by the State of Washington, Department of Labor & Industries, Safety & Health Investment Projects.

Leading Focus Groups to Learn About Worker Stress

            Workplace stress can impair a worker’s ability to adequately perform their job functions and put them at risk of injury. If persistent, workplace stress can also lead to longer-term health problems and reduced productivity. Recently Dr. Noah Seixas, Dr. June Spector, and Dr. Anjum Hajat, Hannah Curtis, Jessica Porter, and Orly Stampher, investigators from the UW Interdisciplinary Center for Exposures, Genomics, Diseases,
and Environment (EDGE) partnered with Heather Winfrey of the Seattle Area Pipe Trades Apprenticeship, Vanessa Carmen of SMART Local 66, and Cindy Gaudio of the Carpenters Employers Apprenticeship Training Trust to research stress in construction workers, particularly women. Their goal was to better understand the impact of work and non-work stressors on worker’s health.
            In an initial phase of the study participants filled out a survey about a wide variety of work and non-work stressors. Perceived stress was one of the main outcomes studied, using a validated instrument called the “Perceived Stress Scale.” They then had blood samples taken to measure four biomarkers related to the immune system, the inflammatory system, and the hormone response system. Participants were also asked to share strategies they used for managing stressful situations at work.
            In a second stage of the study, the EDGE Community Engagement Core helped Research Coordinator, Hannah Curtis, and graduate student, Orly Stampfer, facilitate small focus groups with study participants to discuss preliminary findings, hear how participants interpreted these results, and understand what additional information they wanted to see.
            Two focus groups were held and participants in both expressed gratitude for having a venue to discuss issues of discrimination at work. Results from the study are now being prepared into materials to give back to the participants that will include appropriate interpretation of the results along with proactive steps that can be taken to reduce workplace stress.

Director Terry Kavanuagh named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Last month our director, Terry Kavanaugh, was named as a new fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in honor of a lifetime of scientific achievement. The following story about his career first ran on "Health and Safety Matters", the blog of the University of Washington Department of Occupational and Health Sciences.

Celebrating a lifetime of scientific achievement

Lynn Schnaiberg
 December 18, 2018

DEOHS Professor Terrance Kavanagh investigates what makes some of us more vulnerable to toxic chemicals and environmental exposures

Terrance Kavanagh

Professor, UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences

Adjunct Professor, UW Departments of Medicine and Pathology

Co-director, the Predictive Toxicology Center
“Studying environmental toxicology and genetics was a way to combine my interests in environmental sciences . . . and health, letting me contribute to both environmental and public health.”
Terrance Kavanagh, professor in the University of Washington Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, is one of two UW researchers recently named among the 416 new fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Fellows are elected by peers in recognition of their efforts to advance science or its applications.
Below, we talk with Kavanagh, 64, a laboratory scientist, fly fisherman and winemaker who left his native Michigan for the UW in 1985 to become a postdoc in the pathology department. Today, he directs or co-directs three UW centers. His comments have been edited for clarity and length.

What work are you most proud of? 

We were among the first to create cellular and animal models (lab mice) of modified glutathione synthesis. This work is important for understanding which individuals are most susceptible to harmful environmental exposures, as well as for understanding human diseases and our metabolism of drugs.
Plants, animals and humans all produce the antioxidant glutathione, which lessens harm from exposure to toxicants and disease conditions associated with oxidative stress. As humans age, glutathione levels drop. But a person’s genetics also affect how efficiently the body replaces the antioxidant as it is expended to protect our cells.
We’ve modified a gene in lab mice so that they can no longer efficiently make glutathione. This lets us probe the role glutathione plays in many cellular and physiological processes.
We can then relate those processes to common genetic differences in humans that give us variable capacity to make this vital antioxidant—and, therefore, variable levels of vulnerability to suffering adverse health impacts from chemical exposures.

What in your wide-ranging work has most impacted human health or the scientific field?

Our work can be used to understand who is most vulnerable to toxic chemicals and under what conditions, informing environmental and public health policies that aim to protect susceptible individuals within the broader population.
This is especially useful as personalized medicine and precision environmental health policy evolve.
We already know low glutathione in animals is associated with negative cardiovascular effects from diesel exhaust. In humans, low glutathione can predispose us to acetaminophen drug overdose and resulting liver damage. And we know glutathione dysregulation is linked with cerebral vascular disease, metabolic syndrome, cystic fibrosis and Type 1 diabetes.
Researchers across the country have used the models we (and others) have developed to investigate the importance of this antioxidant in protecting cells, animals and people from various drugs and chemical pollutants and to explore aspects of development and aging, cancer, liver, lung and kidney diseases, inflammation and immunity, psychiatric disorders and neurological diseases.
Terry Kavanagh
Kavanagh talks with DEOHS colleagues. Photo courtesy of Kavanagh.

Tell us about the timely e-cigarette research you’re doing.

Our work with the National Cancer Institute will investigate the potential carcinogenic effects of e-cigarettes—and not just around nicotine.
Important questions relate to the huge diversity of flavoring agents used in these devices. We don’t know a lot about these agents’ toxicity and their ability to initiate and promote precancerous lesions or even cancer itself.
Flavoring agents can turn into reactive aldehydes that can change your DNA. This is the Wild West: People are putting in all kinds of flavoring—and it’s largely unregulated. What happens when these flavoring agents get heated up? Is second-hand exposure to exhaled vapors, particles and chemically modified elements from e-cigarettes potentially harmful? Are we genetically predisposed to susceptibility for adverse effects from e-cigarettes?
We’re using genetically inbred strains of mice that are predicted to be more (or less) susceptible to these e-cigarette constituents. Hopefully this will let us discover, through genetic mapping, those gene variants associated with susceptibility (or resistance) to e-cigarettes.

What drew you to your field? With an undergraduate degree in natural resources, you’ve gone from the natural world to the world of the body and how the first affects the second.

Yes, I’ve gone from studying the entire environment to cells in a dish. I spent a lot of my childhood in the woods and waters of Northern Michigan, which gave me a sense of wonder about the natural world and inspired a love of science.
Today, I hike and camp at Mount Rainier and fly-fish the Yakima River and rivers in Montana. I started college in premed, but found myself also drawn to ecology, evolutionary biology and natural resources. I realized that studying environmental toxicology and genetics was a way to combine my interests in environmental sciences with my interests in medicine and health, letting me contribute to both environmental and public health.
Terry Kavanagh
Kavanagh also makes wine with several DEOHS colleagues. Photo courtesy of Kavanagh.

You’ve got a reputation as a quality winemaker who shares the (literal) fruits of your labor at department get-togethers. Are your forays in fermentation just another form of lab play?

I’ve been fortunate to have wonderfully fun colleagues and friends as fellow winemakers for almost 20 years. Each year seems to have its unique qualities of season, climate and timing. The strains of yeast and malolactic bacteria we add all impact our wines’ quality, which gives us a lot to discuss and argue over.
Naturally, this also requires frequent sampling as the wine ages.