Deadly Fungal Outbreak Linked to Michigan Paper Mill

A rare fungal infection, blastomycosis, has claimed one life and hospitalized 12 people at a paper mill in Escanaba, Michigan. The mill, operated by Billerud, is at the center of what could be one of the most significant fungal outbreaks in US history. 

With nearly 100 suspected or confirmed cases, the outbreak far surpasses the previous largest in 2010 in Wisconsin, involving 55 cases, 30 hospitalizations, and two fatalities.

Mill Closure and Deep Cleaning

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In response to the outbreak, Billerud announced the mill’s three-week closure, beginning late Thursday. The closure allows for deep cleaning and investigation into the source of the fungus, which remains unidentified. 

The mill was first alerted to the outbreak in early March when workers tested positive for blastomycosis. Since then, the number of confirmed cases has risen to 21, with 76 probable cases.

Employee Experiences and Health Concerns

Several workers at the mill have reported severe symptoms, including difficulty breathing, coughing up blood or mucus, and fungal nodules in their lungs. 

Some employees required weeks of hospital care, while others recovered from the infection. Health officials have confirmed that all cases and hospitalizations are among employees, contractors, or mill visitors, with no disease in the wider community.

What is Blastomycosis?

Blastomycosis is a rare fungal infection caused by a fungi known as Blastomyces. 

These fungi live in the environment, mainly in moist soil and decomposing organic materials such as wood and leaves. 

People contract the infection by inhaling the microscopic spores released by the fungi, which can cause pneumonia and spread throughout the body. Blastomycosis is not transmitted from person to person or from animal to person.

A Growing Concern in the Region

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a known risk area for blastomycosis infection. With an average of 26 cases reported annually in the state over the past five years, this outbreak is a significant cause for concern.

The situation highlights the importance of stringent health and safety measures in industrial settings and the need for ongoing investigation and monitoring to prevent future outbreaks.

Ongoing Investigations and Company Response

Billerud, the Swedish company operating the paper mill, has emphasized that the health and safety of its Escanaba employees are its top priority. 

Brian Peterson, Vice President of Operations at the mill, expressed deep sadness over the fatality and stressed the seriousness of the situation, even though the source of the infection has not yet been determined. 

The company works closely with health and government officials to follow their recommendations.

Local Health Department and Union Involvement

A local health department health officer, Michael Snyder expressed heartfelt sympathy and prayers for the family, friends, and coworkers who lost their loved one. 

Union representatives, such as Gerald Kell and Jamie Dier from the United Steelworkers Union, also shared their concerns about the severity of the illness experienced by workers at the plant.

Dier, who personally battled a six-week infection with the fungus, emphasized the need for better safety measures and swift action to prevent further infections.

Implications and Future Actions

The Escanaba paper mill outbreak is a stark reminder of the importance of workplace safety and the potential risks of rare infections. In light of this incident, it is crucial for industries operating in environments where such fungi thrive on implementing robust health and safety measures, including regular monitoring and cleaning procedures. 

Additionally, increased awareness and early detection of infections among employees can help prevent the spread of such diseases and mitigate their impact on the workforce.

As the mill undergoes deep cleaning and investigations continue, it is crucial to remain vigilant and ensure that the necessary precautions are taken to protect workers and the community from further outbreaks. 

The lessons learned from this incident should be applied to other industrial settings to prevent the recurrence of similar situations in the future.

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