Justin Matthews, a 33-year-old indoor air quality inspector with a severe nut allergy, died after visiting a worksite where abrasive materials containing ground walnut shells had been used to blast paint off the walls, according to CBC News, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Alberta occupational health and safety officials are conducting an investigation into the cause of death. A severe allergic reaction to airborne organic particles is rare, but particulate plant matter can cause irritation responses in some people.
Matthews reportedly was inspecting a fire station undergoing renovation when he started having trouble breathing. Authorities said he experienced anaphylactic shock and cardiac arrest, suffered brain damage, and after being in a coma for five days, was taken off life support.
Family members said Matthews often carried an epinephrine auto-injector with him in the event of an allergic reaction. However, initial reports suggest he did not have it with him and had not taken other exposure precautions.
Ground walnut shells are used in sand-blasting operations as an alternative to sand containing silica. Inhalation of silica particles is associated with serious and potentially fatal health effects including silicosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and activation of latent TB infection. (Refer to WorkCare’s fact sheet on respirable crystalline silica exposure hazards and related OSHA regulations.) Other natural products being used in industry as an alternative to silica include ground coconut shells and corn cobs.
“Regulations often lead to surprising and unanticipated behavior and practice changes,”
said Peter P. Greaney, M.D., CEO, president and medical director of WorkCare. “This situation suggests that employers may be moving away from using a chronic, fibrogenic hazard and replacing it with a type-one acute toxin.”