Category: Diacetyl

Coffee Roasting and Popcorn Lung

Cross-posted from Interrobang

Who among us coffee drinkers don’t love the smell of freshly roasted coffee? I am sure some of us imagine how much fun it would be to smell freshly roasting coffee more often. I don’t, because smell for me is an instant jolt of pleasure/pain followed by a rather rapid decline into the background.

Caution, though. New measurements from the US Centres for Disease Control warn of high exposure to some pretty nasty chemicals that can cause your lungs to be destroyed irreversibly, the unfortunately named “popcorn lung” or bronchitis obliterans:

Investigators with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, a research arm of the CDC, spent several days at Madison-based Just Coffee in July. Investigators tested personal air space and took air samples to measure the concentration of the chemicals diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione… NIOSH researchers found levels in three breathing-zone samples that exceeded the safety levels recommended by the CDC.

Coffee Roasting Plants and Exposure

The test results show a marginal exceedance in this case, but noted that ventilation is a big factor and these tests were done under well ventilated conditions on a warm and dry day when doors were open. So, exposure can be higher in other circumstances.

Worker exposures are to higher levels, and are more sustained, so they deserve the most attention.

So, local coffee roasters, it may make sense to confirm that your roasting environments are not exposing your workers to harmful, lung obliterating chemicals. Remember, organic, shade grown, fair pay, artisanal roasting aside, chemical exposures to workers don’t change. And, everything that smells good isn’t good for you.

One of my frequent points of emphasis (rants, some might say) is on the relative risk vs. media attention to exposures of people to ambient, day to day concentrations of potential harmful chemicals vs. those faced by workers everywhere. The last time diacetyl and bronchitis obliterans were in the news, it was around the use of diacetyl to produce that buttery smell so beloved in microwave bag popcorn (I don’t like it myself, olive oil all the way!). Despite reports of many workers facing severe lung issues, it took the detection of the disease of one person eating multiple bags of microwave popcorn over many years to actually move government regulators into action on diacetyl. People who work in factories, in the fields, and make things are exposed to thousands of times higher concentrations of harmful chemicals for longer periods of time, but their concerns are often de-emphasized.

This doesn’t mean ambient exposures in the general population are to be ignored, but worker exposures are to higher levels, and more sustained, so they deserve the most attention.

16-May-2016 Update

This US Centers for Disease Control page is a good collection of information and further readings. They recommend facility tests to measure diacetyl and its cousin 2,3-pentanedione, and better ventilation, worker safeguards and personal protective equipment as necessary. They also note that at least five workers in large scale coffee processing plants have been diagnosed with bronchitis obliterans.

Coffee image By Ailura – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Diacetyl Media Coverage Rant

06Sep07Capture.jpgFeel free to disregard if you don’t like rants, but the NY Times story of one man’s at-home exposure to diacetyl and the resulting case of bronchiolitis obliterans has made the most emailed list as of 06-Sep-07, and propelled diacetyl into the big time. Now, anyone who keeps half an eye on occupational health issues (or reads the pump handle) would have known that at least 5 workers in the flavoring industry had died of this disease, and many many more were afflicted by bronchiolitis obliterans. Yet, the press completely ignored this issue. As soon as one person had the same problem at home, it suddenly became a frontpage issue, causing all kinds of backpedalling by Conagra and big popcorn (gotta love that phrase!!).

There is a casual and systemic disregard for blue collar worker’s rights in this country, starting from an institutional distaste for unions, lack of health coverage, job security, pensions, playing one set of workers against the other, using selectively and arbitrarily enforced immigration laws to keep workers pliant, putting industry executives and lobbyists in charge of agencies that are supposed to keep workers’ welfare in mind, stressing “voluntary” regulation. failing to react to new information, I could go on and on, but you know the deal.

Why is it that the US national press can identify so much easier with one isolated case of popcorn lung while having ignored all the other occupational exposure cases? I am just a scientist, no sociologist/economist/anthropologist, but it seems to me that the press here is way too white collar and just cannot relate to the average agricultural/industrial worker. The average journalist is a white man with a journalism major from a reputable school who cut his chops doing unpaid work for the school paper. These kinds of educational and apprenticeship requirements filter the journalist worker pool to a rather homogeneous white, middle class tepidity. Because the average journalist can’t identify with issues faced by blue collar America, there’s this unstated assumption that somehow, their lives are hard and fraught with danger and uncertainty, but they don’t really deserve much better, it’s their lot in life. It’s probably because they did not study hard enough or were smart enough.

As usual, there are no easy answers. I would say Agitate, Agitate, Agitate!! But what do I know about blue collar America? People are working so hard to make ends meet without a safety net or anyone looking out for them that they have just about enough energy to get through the day and face the next one.

Diacetyl hits the big time

It’s well known that occupational exposure to various pollutants including pesticides, manufacturing raw materials, and in this case, flavoring agents, is a serious problem affecting millions of factory and farm workers all over the world.

Which is why it is interesting when one case of a man contracting an illness possibly linked to at-home diacetyl exposure makes much more splashy news than the well documented cases of many workers dying of such exposure at work. It is unfortunate, but people working at factories and in farms are somehow expected to handle higher levels of exposure and risk. The assumption is that they are protected by agencies such as OSHA, and that they will provided with protective wear, etc. But, when the agencies drop the ball on protecting workers, it takes an “escape” of the incident into the ambient realm for the news agencies to pick it up as a headline.

I guess the good thing now is that this diacetyl issue is blown open, and should result in reform, because alternatives are available.

Doctor Links a Man’s Illness to a Microwave Popcorn Habit – New York Times

A fondness for microwave buttered popcorn may have led a 53-year-old Colorado man to develop a serious lung condition that until now has been found only in people working in popcorn plants.

Lung specialists and even a top industry official say the case, the first of its kind, raises serious concerns about the safety of microwave butter-flavored popcorn.

“We’ve all been working on the workplace safety side of this, but the potential for consumer exposure is very concerning,” said John B. Hallagan, general counsel for the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the United States, a trade association of companies that make butter flavorings for popcorn producers. “Are there other cases out there? There could be.”

A spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration said that the agency was considering the case as part of a review of the safety of diacetyl, which adds the buttery taste to many microwave popcorns, including Orville Redenbacher and Act II.

Meanwhile, ConAgra, the biggest manufacturer of popcorn, announces plans to drop diacetyl at some undetermined “later date”. Weird, their website’s currently down!

The Pump handle and Diacetyl

The Pump Handle looks at the response of various government agencies (notionally charged with protecting American people) to increasing information about the danger of diacetyl exposure, certainly to workers in the flavoring industry, and recently, to consumers of microwave popcorn. An excellent post, deserves wider reading!


Popcorn Lung Coming to Your Kitchen? The FDA Doesn’t Want to Know « The Pump Handle

The CDC, FDA, OSHA, EPA – federal agencies charged with protecting public health – each received a letter in July alerting them to the possible serious respiratory hazard to consumers who breathe in fumes from their artificially butter-flavored microwave popcorn. The warning should have resulted in some action by these agencies, but instead, they’ve done virtually nothing.

It appears that the Bush Administration’s efforts to destroy the regulatory system are succeeding; the agencies seem unable to mount a response to information that a well-functioning regulatory system would immediately pursue. The agencies aren’t even trying to connect the dots.

Read on. I moved to the US in 1997 and I’ve noticed a stark difference in the performance of the government agencies named here. I have no doubt that the agencies will eventually bounce back under the right circumstances, but it is disheartening how far agencies such as the EPA, once regarded as models of well run government (at least to a developing country!) have fallen.

Good news on Diacetyl

It turns out that turning up the heat on popcorn manufacturers to replace diacetyl, the artificial butter flavoring ingredient that kills people exposed to it during manufacturing, has effects. Apparently, there are substitutes that work just as well and can be used without too much trouble.

Popcorn Maker Drops Chemical Linked To Lung Ailment – Local News Story – WRTV Indianapolis

Weaver Popcorn Co., one of the nation’s top microwave popcorn makers, has switched to a new butter flavoring, replacing a chemical linked to a lung ailment in popcorn plant workers.

The Indianapolis-based company began shipping new butter-flavored microwave popcorn a few weeks ago that contain no diacetyl, a chemical undergoing national scrutiny because of cases of bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare life-threatening disease often called popcorn lung.

Company president Mike Weaver said that although his workers have experienced no such cases, the family-owned business wanted to lead the popcorn industry and allay consumer fears by eliminating the chemical from its product line

David Michaels of George Washington University’s Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy Project and writer on one of my favorite blogs, the Pump Handle has been at the forefront of documenting this issue, raising awareness and bringing pressure to bear. I am glad to see that we’re seeing positive change for diacetyl.

Hopefully, you’re going to start seeing “Diacetyl Free!!!!” signs on your microwave popcorn (and other artificially buttered products) real soon.

California Ban on Diacetyl?

Flavoring-Factory Illnesses Raise Inquiries – New York Times

For a good background on flavoring-factory lung disease (formerly known as popcorn worker’s lung), check out the Pump Handle’s many posts, especially this recent one. Short primer, diacetyl is the chemical that gives popcorn its so called buttery taste (and smell, it’s fake!!). Well, there’s pretty good evidence that diacetyl causes bronchiolitis obliterans. Some symptoms…

Bronchiolitis obliterans renders its victims unable to exert even a little energy without becoming winded or faint.

“The airways to the lung have been eaten up,” said Barbara Materna, the chief of the occupational health branch in the California Department of Health Services. “They can’t work anymore, and they can’t walk a short distance without severe shortness of breath.”

OSHA has been unwilling to seriously regulate diacetyl, so California, as it is wont to do, is considering banning this killer chemical.


But in California, which has 28 flavoring plants known to use diacetyl, some legislators and government officials seem unwilling to wait. A bill to ban diacetyl in the workplace by 2010 has passed two committees in the State Assembly and could be taken up by the full body this summer. It is the first proposal of its kind in the nation. Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, the author of the bill, said she introduced it because of what she said was the slow response by the flavoring industry, which is largely self-regulating on occupational safety. “What we’ve heard is that the flavoring industry has known for years that this is potentially a problem, and they haven’t taken action,” said Ms. Lieber, a Democrat.

I am all for California’s regulation. But as written, this law will only protect workers in California. They should also consider going one step further by restricting the use of diacetyl in food sold in California. Only then can the giant market that is California exert its influence on the diacetyl manufacturers and users.