Plenty has been said about the health risks of caffeine. An investigation by Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) in Berlin has found that espresso machines pose potential health hazards in the form of something you do not want a shot of in your latte: lead.
Two-thirds of the machines tested by the BfR were found to be discharging high levels of lead after they had been cleaned for limescale, the off-white chalky residue left in kettles, hot water boilers, pipes and other items. After an espresso machine was cleaned, the concentration of lead in water passing through it was found to be 100 times higher than the limits recommended by the European Union.
Testing a few days after the machines had been cleaned found that the lead content of the water was up to five times higher than the E.U.’s limit.
The limescale that builds up on metal appliances after they’ve been heated consists mostly of calcium carbonate. To clean this off, materials that clear calcium deposits are used; these appear to be the culprits as the researchers found that these cleaning agents were coming into contact with the parts of espresso machines that are releasing lead.
A BfR spokesman told Der Spiegel that the investigation indicates that espresso machines — expensive pump-driven ones found in cafes, that is — pose a serious health risk that requires attention. In particular, “the lead emissions need to be minimized to guarantee users’ safety,” the BfR emphasized.
The German researchers emphasize that espresso machines made for use in your home (“capsule” or “coffee pod” type machines) contained only minimal traces of lead. If you’re cleaning your own espresso machine, you can avoid chemical cleaning agents altogether by using lemon juice and vinegar.
I suspect most of us have never thought to ask a barista how a machine is cleaned and with what. The German study’s findings should give you pause if your daily shot of espresso, frothy cappuccino or other coffee drink is made in the sort of fancy, gleaming, stainless steel contraptions that grace the counters of many a cafe.
While waiting to see if and how E.U.officials respond to the German study’s findings, it might be well to alternate your espresso-drinking with a cup made by another method or (if you can make the switch), to have a cup of tea. I am myself a serious coffee drinker and would be hard-pressed to do so! I rarely, rarely find myself in a cafe and don’t use an espresso machine (I’ve been using this device lately).
The German study is as good a reminder as any that, in contradiction to the advice a friend in graduate school once gave me about making great coffee (“never clean the machine”), you should indeed do so (after, of course, you’ve composted the coffee grounds), but make sure what your using doesn’t pose a health hazard.
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