In a tragic turn of events, a 27-year-old woman employed at a Massachusetts cannabis-processing facility became the first reported fatality in the growing cannabis industry due to asthma-related complications. The case, detailed in a report published on November 17, 2023, by the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, raises concerns about respiratory hazards in marijuana-processing plants.
The young woman, with no prior history of asthma, began working at the cannabis cultivation and processing facility in May 2021. Within three to four months of employment, she developed work-related respiratory symptoms, including a runny nose, cough, and shortness of breath. Despite wearing an N95 mask and protective gloves, the employee was exposed to allergen-laden dust during her tasks, particularly in the flower production area where cannabis plant flowers were ground to prepare cannabis cigarettes.
The report highlights that dust visibly escaped into the air, even though a non-HEPA shop vacuum was used to collect dust from the grinder. As her symptoms worsened, the woman’s workstation was relocated outside the grinding room, but unfortunately, on November 9, 2021, she suffered a severe asthma attack, prompting emergency medical services to rush her to a local emergency department.
After recovering from the initial attack, the woman’s respiratory health continued to decline, leading to her death three days later on January 7, 2022. Investigations revealed that her albuterol nebulizer had been used over 200 times in the two months preceding her demise.
This case is not an isolated incident. The report cites a study in Washington state where 13 out of 31 employees in an indoor cannabis production facility displayed symptoms suggestive of asthma. Another study in the same state identified seven cases of “work-exacerbated” asthma among cannabis facility employees, forcing three workers to resign due to the severity of their symptoms.
The researchers, led by Dr. Virginia Weaver of the U.S. Department of Labor, emphasize the need for employers in the cannabis industry to recognize the potential respiratory hazards associated with the production process. They warn that occupational allergic diseases, including asthma, are becoming a growing concern in the rapidly expanding U.S. cannabis industry.
This tragic incident serves as a somber reminder of the importance of addressing workplace safety in cannabis-processing plants and implementing measures to protect employees from respiratory hazards associated with their tasks.