Michigan paper mill employees have reported 19 verified and 74 probable cases of blastomycosis, a rare fungal infection. Public Health Delta & Menominee Counties was notified on February 28 of several uncommon pneumonia-like infections among Billerud Paper Mill employees in Escanaba, Michigan. At the time, tests indicated that the ailments were caused by blastomycosis, a fungal infection.
Blastomycosis, also known as ‘blasto,’ is a lung infection caused by Blastomyces, a fungus found in moist soil and decaying timber or leaves, especially in the Great Lakes region, the Mississippi River valleys, and the Saint Lawrence River.
Following the initial notification, the number of blasto cases linked to the paper mill has increased. According to a press release issued by Public Health Delta & Menominee Counties on April 7, 19 verified, and 74 probable cases of the fungal infection have been identified. However, WLUC TV6, an upper Michigan news source, reports that the number of confirmed and probable cases has increased to 21 and 76, respectively.
When a person exhibits symptoms of the disease and the fungus has been cultured or observed in a test specimen, the diagnosis of blastomycosis is confirmed. A probable case, on the other hand, is when a person exhibits blasto symptoms and a positive antigen or antibody test.
Brian Peterson, operations vice president and manager of Billerud Escanaba Mill, is quoted in a company press release as saying, “Identifying the source can be difficult because the blastomyces fungus is endemic to our area, and there has never been an industrial outbreak of this nature documented anywhere in the United States from which we can learn.”
“According to NIOSH, there are no commercially available laboratories that can test for the presence of blastomyces fungus. However, we are making every effort to identify common exposures among Escanaba team members who are ill,” he added.
Due to the ongoing investigation, Billerud announced on April 13 that the Escanaba Paper Mill would cease operations for up to three weeks. During this period, the facility will be cleaned thoroughly in accordance with National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) regulations.
Peterson stated, “At the Escanaba Mill, we begin and end each day by discussing getting to the bottom of this issue, protecting the health and safety of our employees and contractors, and restoring employees and contractors to full health.”
“I can assure everyone that our employees are our top priority; we care deeply about their well-being and, in close coordination with our union leaders and health officials, are doing everything possible to safeguard them, as well as identifying and addressing the root cause of these infections.” He added, “We’re all in this together.”