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Over 100 Paper Mill Employees Infected With Rare Fungus

By    |   Monday, 10 April 2023 06:47 PM EDT

More than 100 employees at a northern Michigan paper mill have been infected — and a dozen hospitalized — after a rare encounter with a fungus.

The fungus, blastomyces, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is most commonly found in "moist soil and in decomposing" wood or leaves and is the cause of the infection known as blastomycosis, which, when inhaled, can infect the lungs causing "cold-like" symptoms, and in rare and extreme cases spread to the muscle tissue, bones, or nervous system triggering encephalitis — a swelling of the brain.

Experts tell the Daily Mail that the sheer size of the outbreak at the Billerud paper mill in Escanaba, Michigan, is "extraordinary."

"Outbreaks of blastomycosis are unusual, and this outbreak of blastomycosis is extraordinary for its size," infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, Dr. William Schaffner told the paper.

"It looks as though it is the largest recorded outbreak of blastomycosis in the U.S."

In 2010, an outbreak in Wisconsin involved 55 cases, including 30 hospitalizations and two deaths. The source of the outbreak was never determined, but experts believe it was caused by "outdoor recreational activities."

For Gerald Kell, who heads up the United Steelworkers Local 21 union representing the Michigan plant, he tells the Detroit Free Press that in his "11 years" working at the plant, he's "never seen anything like this."

"Of course, people are concerned," he added. "We aren't sure where the exposure is coming from. It's not pinpointed; we have cases throughout the mill. It's a 2,200-acre facility."

Billerud AB owns the Escanaba mill. According to the company's vice president, Brian Petersen, "The health and safety of our Escanaba employees is our first priority."

Petersen goes on to add that while "the source of the infection has not been established, we continue to take this matter very seriously and are following recommendations from health and government officials and implementing numerous, proactive steps to protect the health and safety of our employees, contractors and visitors."

Employees at the mill were recently issued N95 masks, the same masks used during the COVID-19 pandemic. It's been reported that a deep cleaning of the facility is underway.

Last weekend a group of employees raised $30,000 to help with their colleagues' medical expenses.

According to one study, from 1990 to 2010, infection from blastomycosis caused 1,216 deaths.

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More than 100 employees at a northern Michigan paper mill have been infected - and a dozen hospitalized - after a rare encounter with a fungus.
papermill, fungus, michigan, rare, outbreak
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2023-47-10
Monday, 10 April 2023 06:47 PM
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