CDC Warns Coffee Workers Over Exposure to Harmful Chemicals

Federal health officials found elevated levels of potentially deadly chemicals at a Wisconsin coffee company and warned workers to limit their exposure to select areas of similar facilities.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health – affiliated with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- spent several days at Just Coffee in Madison, Wisconsin, the first of several studies of coffee facilities around the country.

The results showed both short-term and long-term exposure levels of the chemical diacetyl that were in excess of proposed federal limits.

Diacetyl occurs naturally in butter, beer and coffee, and it is produced synthetically to add flavoring to candy, chips, popcorn and other foods. It is safe to eat in trace amounts, but diacetyl and the closely related 2,3-pentanedione are linked to severe lung damage when inhaled.

Just Coffee, a cooperative on Madison's east side, invited NIOSH investigators following an initial analysis paid for by the Journal Sentinel last year. The results highlighted the dangers to all workers in the coffee industry since Just Coffee does not use added flavors.

The NIOSH probe found particularly high concentrations in areas where coffee beans are ground and stored. The storage bins, investigators said, also showed in elevated levels of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

NIOSH officials told the Journal Sentinel that the agency is prioritizing safety in coffee facilities and cafes, which employ some 600,000 people around the country.

Just Coffee, meanwhile, praised the NIOSH's actions and said that the company is working on ways to better protect its employees.

"It's not at all like a punitive government agency coming in and saying 'we're shutting you down,'" co-found Matt Earley told the paper.

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