Toxic Chemicals In Coffee: Pick Your Poison

by Raza Imam

Coffee Beans

Are there toxic chemicals in your morning cup? Find out what chemicals could be hiding in that bag of beans besides caffeine.

To say that coffee is a cash crop is an understatement. The black stuff is the second most highly traded commodity in the world (after the other black stuff; oil) and is responsible for a multi-billion dollar industry. Being a commercial crop means that it’s mass produced, usually by agri-business conglomerates seeking aggressive ways to maximize output. And since they’re serious about their empire, they often use toxic chemicals to ward off common pests and diseases. Amazingly, the chemical compounds make coffee naturally resistant (though not totally immune) to many pests.

While the roasting process dilutes or eliminates the harmful effects of the toxic chemicals in coffee for consumers, coffee workers and their families are still at high risk. The coffee production process in itself has amazingly detrimental effects on the environment, but that’s a topic for another article. This article is about the janky stuff in your coffee and how it affects the environment.

1. Methyl parathion

This is the most toxic pesticide of all. It is banned in many countries and is highly toxic to humans, birds, fish, and mammals. It’s used to fight leaf miner infestations. Leaf miners are insects that eat at leaves of plants.Β  Despite how dangerous it is, it’s still (mis)used in some countries.


This pesticide is used against coffee cherry borer, a common coffee consuming bug. It’s doesn’t dissolve easily and takes ages to break down in soil and is toxic to most animals. It affects the central nervous system, reproductive organs, kidneys, and liver, and is considered to be worse than the pest itself; it’s even been responsible for human death!

3. Chlorpyrifos

This is also used against common coffee pests and has been banned in the US for household use because it has caused human death and birth defects. Needless to say, it’s quite detrimental to delicate ecosystems.

4. Triadimefon

Copper-based fungicide used to against coffee rust. Only slightly toxic to birds, little is known about its effect on humans, but it is suspected that there is potential for reproductive problems with chronic exposure.Β  It has been found to induce hyperactivity in rats. The major concern is that long-term use of this and other copper-based fungicides is copper accumulation in soils, such as that found in coffee farms in Kenya and in Costa Rica.Β  Copper toxicity has been found in other crops grown in these soils, and copper impacts other biochemical and biological processes in soil, and little is known about long-term effects in tropical ecosystems. The primary metabolite of triadimefon is triadimenol, which is Class III (slightly hazardous). Another profile here.

The Good News

Though pesky, it’s totally possible to combat these insects in a safe and natural way with organic fertilizers and proper care. One cool way to fight these pests is by using the parasitic wasp. The parasitic wasp is a commercially viable insect that will kill common leaf miner larva. Letting them fly around coffee fields will not only help the environment, but it’s probably a lot cheaper than using toxic chemicals. Another interesting way to combat these pests is by using neem oil. The Indian neem tree produces oil that prevents larva from maturing and may even interfere with the egg laying cycle.

This just highlights how our daily consumption habits impact the world around us. The good news is that there’s growing awareness around these issues and large companies have to really change the way they do business if they want to keep their smart and savvy customers happy. And there are a growing number of fair trade, organic, shade grown coffee farmers out there. And there are websites like Coffee Kids and Coffee Habitat taking up these causes too.

This is a guest post by Raza Imam of The Coffee Maker Store… on a mission to be the coolest coffee maker site on the planet. Visit us for the best coffee makers and a growing selection of coffee maker accessories.

Image Credit: Creative Commons photo by jcolivera

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