DETROIT – A contracted employee to a paper mill in Michigan has died from blastomycosis, the fungal infection whose rare outbreak has affected nearly 100 employees at the mill, local health officials said.
The contracted employee to the Billerud mill in Escanaba, whose name was not released, died “recently,” Public Health Delta and Menominee County officials said in a release.
“Everyone at Billerud is deeply saddened by this news,” Brian Peterson, operations vice president for the Billerud Escanaba Paper Mill, said in a release. “Anyone who works at our facility is a part of our team, and we are keeping these individuals, their families, coworkers and friends in our thoughts and close to our hearts.”
Billerud officials on Friday announced the mill with nearly 900 employees would temporarily close for up to three weeks. Authorities will perform a deep cleaning of the vast facility and its ventilation systems, an inspection of incoming materials for the blastomyces fungal spores that cause the disease, and a health hazard evaluation of employees.
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In addition to the local health department, agencies involved include the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
What is blastomycosis? How do people contract it?
Blastomycosis is a disease caused by infection from a fungus found in soil and decaying wood that exists in the eastern US and parts of Canada.
According to the CDC, people contract blastomycosis after breathing in microscopic fungal spores from the air, often after participating in activities that disturb soil. Once inside the lungs, the body’s warmth and moisture can transform the spores into yeast that can stay in the lungs or be transferred through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, including the skin, bones, joints, organs, brain and spinal cord.
Most people who breathe in the blastomyces spores don’t get sick, but some develop symptoms that mimic a cold, the flu or other more common respiratory ailments: fever, cough, night sweats, muscle aches or joint pain, chest pain and extreme fatigue . In some people, especially those with weakened immune systems, blastomycosis can become serious.
Treatment of blastomycosis is with antifungal medications in courses that can take six months to a year.
States that track blastomycosis report only about one or two cases per 100,000 population a year. Deaths from the disease are similarly rare, with the CDC finding 1,216 blastomycosis-related deaths that occurred in the US from 1990 to 2010, an average of about 61 per year nationwide.
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The plant kept operating after the outbreak began; 12 hospitalized
The first case involving employees at the Billerud plant were diagnosed early last month, presenting as atypical pneumonia. Health officials have since determined that to date, 21 Billerud employees have been confirmed infected with blastomycosis through biopsies and laboratory analysis, with another 76 probable cases where workers exhibit symptoms and test positive for antibodies or antigens in their saliva or urine. Twelve of the cases have required hospitalization. All of those infected are either contractors, employees or visitors to the Billerud Paper Mill.
The mill initially continued operation for weeks after learning of the blastomycosis cases, encouraging employees to wear N95 protective masks as investigation of the outbreak and cleaning ensued. Company officials said they were following the recommendations of public health and occupational safety authorities.
The outbreak is considered highly unusual, as blastomycosis is not typically spread from person to person, indicating scores of people were exposed to the same spore-containing materials. Billerud officials stated Friday that there has never before been a blastomycosis outbreak of this type or scale in an industrial setting in the US
The United Steelworkers union on Saturday called for testing and cleaning in paper mills across the industry. The union said it is working with authorities on the search to determine the precise source of the outbreak.
“The paper industry involves a number of potentially serious hazards, but we’ve made incredible progress in making it safer,” said USW International Vice President Leeann Foster, who leads bargaining in the USW’s paper sector. “This situation is no different. We must identify and eliminate the problem before it harms more workers.”
Contact Keith Matheny: [email protected]