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.

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