The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has highlighted a concerning issue in the cannabis industry, specifically related to respiratory hazards faced by employees. A recent report details the first recorded case of an asthma-related fatality in a cannabis processing facility. The incident occurred at a Massachusetts cultivation and processing facility, where a previously healthy 27-year-old woman tragically passed away due to a fatal asthma attack.
The employee had been working at the facility for several months and started experiencing work-related symptoms such as a runny nose, cough, and shortness of breath. She initially worked in an area where cannabis was ground and later transitioned to a role involving the grinding of cannabis plant flowers and preparing cannabis cigarettes. Despite wearing protective gear, including an N95 mask and gloves, the grinding process released allergen-laden dust into the air, which likely contributed to her deteriorating health.
As her symptoms worsened, the employee was moved to a different workstation outside the grinding room. However, on November 9, 2021, she suffered a severe asthma attack that required emergency medical intervention. Although she survived this incident, subsequent investigations revealed her heavy reliance on an albuterol nebulizer, which she used over 200 times in the two months following the attack.
Tragically, on January 4, 2022, the woman experienced another acute asthma attack while filling prerolls. Despite efforts to resuscitate her, she went into cardiopulmonary arrest and passed away three days later. This case is not an isolated incident, as previous studies have identified similar asthma-related symptoms among cannabis facility workers in different states.
An in-depth investigation conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found that despite being initially cleared of asthma through a pulmonary evaluation, exposure to allergens and irritants in the cannabis processing facility likely triggered the fatal asthma attack. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspections also revealed airborne dust and endotoxin levels below permissible exposure limits, highlighting the challenges of monitoring allergens in such environments.
Dr. Virginia Weaver, leading the research team from the U.S. Department of Labor, emphasizes the significant respiratory hazards faced by workers in the cannabis industry. Employees who handle ground cannabis in various work areas are at an increased risk of developing occupational asthma and allergic reactions. The relatively short latency period between exposure and symptoms in this case challenges conventional understanding and may be influenced by the employee’s personal cannabis use and cross-sensitivity to other plant allergens.
The implications for public health are immense. Further research is urgently needed to understand the prevalence and risk factors of occupational allergies related to cannabis as the industry continues to grow rapidly. Strategies must be developed and implemented to protect workers, including exposure control, employee training, proper use of personal protective equipment, and medical management for those with work-related symptoms. In severe cases, work cessation and workers’ compensation may be necessary.
This tragic incident serves as a stark reminder of the emerging health risks in the cannabis industry. Collaboration between employers, regulatory bodies, and health professionals is crucial to address and mitigate these hazards, ensuring the well-being of those working in this rapidly expanding sector. Prioritizing the health and safety of employees in the cannabis processing industry by implementing comprehensive measures and reevaluating workplace safety standards is essential as the industry continues to grow.