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At least 1 dead, 21 sickened in fungal outbreak at U.P. paper mill

Hayley Harding
The Detroit News

At least one person has died in connection with a fungal outbreak at an Escanaba, Michigan, paper mill, health officials said Friday.

County health officials in Michigan's Upper Peninsula are investigating a fungal outbreak tied to the Escanaba Billerud Paper Mill that appears to have killed one person and sickened at least 21 others. The person who died was a contractor who worked at the mill, said Michael Snyder, health officer for the Public Health Department for Delta & Menominee Counties.

Those numbers are up from April 7, when there were at least 19 confirmed cases of blastomycosis. The most recent update also indicates that there are 76 probable cases of blastomycosis among the Escanaba mill workers, according to a news release from the Public Health Department for Delta & Menominee Counties. All 97 of the cases are employees, contractors or visitors of the paper mill, which announced Thursday it was closing for three weeks.

“Everyone at Billerud is deeply saddened by this news,” said Brian Peterson, Billerud operations vice president for the Escanaba Mill. “Anyone who works at our facility is part of our team, and we are keeping this individual, their family, coworkers and friends in our thoughts and close to our hearts.”

The news of the death comes a day after Billerud announced it would idle the mill for "up to three weeks" to allow for deeper cleaning, an action supported by Public Health of Delta and Menominee Counties.

“Our top priority now and always is protecting the health and safety of our employees and contractors who work at our Escanaba Mill,” said Christoph Michalski, Billerud president and CEO, in a news release Thursday. “We care deeply about their well-being and are doing everything we can to protect them and identify and address the root cause of the blastomycosis fungal infections.

Michalski said he believed the financial impact would be "limited."

The company learned of the fungal infections on March 3 from the local public health department in Escanaba, it said in the release.

Billerud said its occupational; health and safety department; union leadership; and mill employees "have been proactively working with the (Public Health Delta & Menominee Counties department), an industrial hygienist, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to investigate the outbreak."

Although the source of the infection hasn't been determined and the investigation has not indicated that "visiting or working at the mill is unsafe, we take this matter very seriously," said Kevin Kuznicki, Billerud president of North America.

“We are following recommendations from experts at these organizations, including deep cleaning in high traffic areas throughout the mill; inspecting ventilation systems and replacing filters, and testing various raw materials coming into the mill; conducting an onsite Health Hazard Evaluation to study the health and safety of Escanaba employees with the assistance of NIOSH, CDC, MDHHS and PHDM; communicating regularly with employees, contractors and visitors, encouraging them to wear NIOSH and OSHA-recommended N95 masks and recommending they contact their local health care providers if they are experiencing any symptoms.

"The temporary idling of the mill to perform additional cleaning is another proactive step we are taking,” Kuznicki said.

The Upper Peninsula, the release said, is a known risk area for blastomycosis infection.

"Identifying the source can be difficult because the blastomyces fungus is endemic to the area and there has never been an industrial outbreak of this nature documented anywhere in the U.S.," the company release said.

Blastomyces lives in moist soil and in decomposing wood and leaves, according to the CDC. The fungus primarily is found in the Midwest, south-central and southeast United States, especially in areas surrounding the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence River.

Those who breathe in the microscopic spores can get an infection, the CDC said. Most people don’t get sick, but some develop a fever and cough. If untreated, an infection can become serious. Infections are treated with antifungal medication.