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How the coffee manufacturing process is slowly killing workers

According to Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, on a daily basis, more than half of all U.S. adults drink at least one cup of coffee. With annual profits in the U.S. alone estimated to be at nearly $3.5 billion, there's certainly a lot of money to be made and at stake in the coffee industry. However, while numerous studies focus on the potential positive and negative health effects of drinking coffee, until recently few were aware of the possible health dangers posed to the men and women who work at coffee manufacturing plants.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to the chemical agent diacetyl has been linked to abnormal lung functioning and lung disease. Diacetyl is commonly used to add flavoring to coffee and is also naturally produced during the coffee manufacturing process. The health dangers posed by the chemical first came to light in 2006 when a number of microwave popcorn workers developed what subsequently became known as popcorn lung.

Despite the known dangers that diacetyl poses to workers who are exposed to the chemical, the "Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not have any regulations limiting workplace exposure to diacetyl." Consequently, the health and very lives of thousands of coffee plant workers who spend their days breathing in diacetyl fumes are in jeopardy.

While investigative journalists at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel were recently able to identify numerous cases in which individuals who worked at coffee manufacturing plants suffered abnormal lung problems including the irreversible lung disease known as bronchiolitis obliterans, both federal regulators and coffee companies have failed to take action to protect workers.

Today workers continue to be exposed to potentially deadly levels of diacetyl which could easily be remedied through the implementation of improved ventilation and enclosing the areas in which coffee beans are roasted and ground.

Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Danger brewing for coffee roasters: Nation's workplace surveillance system fails to detect illnesses related to specific jobs," Raquel Rutledge, Dec. 30, 2015

Daily Coffee News, "At $3.48 Billion, Coffee Jumps to Second Place in U.S. Specialty Food Sales," Nick Brown, April 9, 2015

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