The U.S. cannabis production industry's first reported occupational asthma death took the life of a worker in Massachusetts, federal health and safety officials said.
The woman, 27, was working in a cannabis cultivation and processing facility when she experienced worsening work-related respiratory symptoms that ended in a fatal asthma attack in January 2022, officials said in a federal report published Thursday. The report states that allergic diseases such as asthma are a growing concern in the U.S. cannabis industry, which has grown rapidly in recent years thanks to a wave of state-level legalizations.
The report said the worker's death "illustrates missed opportunities for prevention, including workplace exposures, medical surveillance, and treatment according to the current asthma guidelines."
The report also states that evaluation of workers with new-onset or worsening asthma is essential in cannabis facilities. That approach could help prevent workplace deaths when paired "with prompt diagnosis and medical management," the report states.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published the report, which it said represented findings of a federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspection that included a worksite exposure assessment, coworker and next-of-kin interviews, medical record reviews, and collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
The report does not name the worker or the Massachusetts facility. However, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration reported in filings last year that an employee at the Holyoke location of cannabis company Trulieve who was packaging ground cannabis into pre-rolls suffered an asthma attack and later died in the hospital. Trulieve identified the worker as Lorna McMurrey, 27, last year.
According to Boston.com, Trulieve paid more than $14,00 after reaching a settlement with OSHA after McMurrey's death.
At the time, Trulieve said it would "design and implement a temporary information and training program that alerts employees to potential allergic reactions they might experience working with ground cannabis dust in an occupational setting," according to the outlet.
Representatives for Trulieve did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
The report cites studies that identify respiratory hazards in the cannabis cultivation and production industry, such as microbial and plant allergens. The report also states that chemicals such as pesticides and allergens specific to the cannabis plant itself can be a hazard.
"A big red flag"
The finding comes as legalization of recreational marijuana, and the resultant growth of the cannabis industry, is spreading. Almost half the states allow adult recreational use of marijuana. Legalizations began in 2012 with Washington andand have only accelerated.
Advocates for safety in the marijuana industry have called for more safeguards to make sure the cannabis business doesn't put workers or the public at risk.
The death of the Massachusetts worker "should be a big red flag to lawmakers that we need to put way more guardrails around that industry," said Scott Gagnon, a cannabis industry watchdog who advocates for the prevention of substance abuse in Maine, where marijuana has been legal for several years.
The industry wants to be as safe as possible, said Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, the marijuana law reform group, adding that "likelihood of such incidences is greatly reduced in environments where cannabis businesses are licensed, regulated, and required to adhere to the same sort of workplace safety regulations and standards as others."
"Furthermore, when such incidences do occur, the regulated marketplace ensures that they are properly investigated and that corrective actions are taken to prevent future incidents," Armentano said.
As the number of cannabis-friendly states across the U.S. has grown, so, too, has theamong American workers.
An annual analysis from Quest Diagnostics medical lab and testing company shows the percentage of general U.S. employees, who tested positive for cannabis in 2022 reached the highest level ever recorded by Quest, which began analyzing annual workplace drug testing data in 1988.
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