A contract worker at the Billerud paper mill in Escanaba has died of a fungal infection called blatomycosis, local health officials said.
The employee, whose contract was not disclosed, died “recently,” Public Health Delta and Menominee County officials said in a statement.
“Everyone at Billerud is deeply saddened by this news,” Billerud Escanaba Paper Mill Vice President of Operations Brian Peterson said in a release. “Everyone who works at our facility is part of our team, and we are keeping this individual, their family, colleagues and friends in our thoughts and close to our hearts.”
Billerud officials announced on Friday that the mill – the largest manufacturing employer north of the Midlands, with about 900 workers – will be temporarily closed for up to three weeks. Officials will carry out a thorough cleaning of the vast facility and its ventilation systems, testing materials for spores of the fungus Blatomyces that cause the disease, and conducting a health risk assessment of workers.
How do people get Blastomycosis?
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 for Occupational Safety and Health.
Blastomycosis is a disease caused by a fungal infection in soil and decaying wood 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 engaging in soil-disturbing activities. Once inside the lungs, the body’s heat and humidity can turn the spores into yeast, which can remain in the lungs or travel through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, including the skin, bones, joints, organs, brain, and spinal cord.
Most people who breathe in Blatomomices spores do not get sick, but some develop symptoms that resemble the flu, the flu, or other common respiratory illnesses, including fever, cough, night sweats, muscle or joint pain, chest pain, and extreme fatigue. . In some people, especially those with a weakened immune system, Blatomycosis can be severe.
Blastomycosis is treated with antifungal drugs in courses of six months to one year.
States that monitor biliary tract infection report only one or two cases per 100,000 population per year. Similarly, deaths from the disease are relatively rare, with the CDC reporting that there were 1,216 blastomycosis-related deaths in the US from 1990 to 2010, compared to a national average of about 61.
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After the outbreak, the plant continued to operate
The first cases involving workers at the Bilerud plant were discovered early last month, with what appeared to be a rare case of pneumonia. Health officials have so far confirmed 21 Billerud workers with Blatomycosis through biopsies and laboratory analysis, and 76 other possible cases when the workers showed symptoms and had antibodies or antigens detected in their saliva or urine. 12 of the cases required hospitalization. All those infected are contractors, employees or visitors to Billerud Paper Mill.
After the mill initially learned of the Blastomycosis cases, it continued to operate for weeks, encouraging workers to wear N95 protective masks while monitoring the outbreak and cleaning process. Company officials said they are following the recommendations of public health and occupational safety officials.
The outbreak is thought to be very rare, as blattomycosis is not normally transmitted from person to person, and it would involve exposure of many people to materials containing the same spores. Billerud officials announced Friday that an outbreak of bandatomycosis of this type or scale has never been seen in an industrial environment in the United States.
The United Steelworkers’ Association on Saturday called for testing and cleanup at paper mills in the industry. The union said it is working with authorities on the investigation to determine the exact source of the outbreak.
USW Global Vice President Leanne Foster, who leads USW’s paper sector negotiations, said: “The paper industry involves a number of potentially serious risks, but we have made remarkable progress in making it safer. “This situation is no different. We need to identify and eliminate the problem before it affects more workers.
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