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Grow house hazards: Beware of Aspergillus and other molds

Following up on the tactical tip I posted last week relative to dos and don’ts for handling meth precursors.  I got several great pieces of feedback from PoliceOne Members, three of which I want to synthesize and share with you today. 

For starters, let’s just make a simple, declarative statement which can apply to a host of different materials you encounter on the streets: If you don’t know what it is, don’t touch it bare handed! Sounds so simple, but unfortunately it’s just one of those things we see way, way too often. 

Secondly, even if you’ve got yourself protected with gloves, be very careful about how you’re using your hands. Without even thinking about it, human beings are constantly touching their faces — the nose, the eyes, even the mouth — as a matter of absentminded muscle memory.  Any one of these little moves can result in potentially inhaling/ingesting/absorbing hazardous materials. 

Finally, I want to share some of the thoughts written to me by someone named David Fulton. 

“Great article regarding meth labs and officer safety recently in PoliceOne,” Fulton began. “Would you please also put the word out that officers are grossly over-exposed to fungi, and possibly herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers during marijuana grow-op or drying house busts? Persistent inflammatory and invasive fungal infections of the respiratory and vascular systems, skin, liver and brain can result from these exposures — career-limiting changes that cannot be reversed or easily treated with the medications currently available.”

Fulton knows what he’s talking about — he’s American Board of Industrial Hygiene Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) with 42 years of experience that includes assessing MGO biological and chemical health risks.  I looked him up.  He’s also President of CBRNE Group, a company based out of London, Ontario, Canada which provides consulting services relative to ‘MGO & Meth Lab’ safety for the fire, EMS, and law enforcement sectors, as well as other ‘Environmental Risk & Industrial Hygiene’ consulting for the corporate and manufacturing worlds. 

“Although acceptable concentrations for fungi exposure are debated,” Fulton added, “an Aspergillus species concentration of 50 to 100 spores per cubic meter is generally considered acceptable. I have measured Aspergillus levels at greater than 350,000 spores per cubic metre, 7,000 times the ‘safe’ level within days of the MGO being released as a crime scene. The exposure of the involved LEOs would be considerably higher during the bust and forensics investigation. At these spore concentrations, an SCBA and Level A suit would barely provide sufficient protection, yet officers go in with no or minimal respiratory protection out of necessity to get the job done. The Tyvek suits worn during post-raid investigations provide zero protection as they act as a giant bellows that sucks spores ~ 1/3 the size of a red blood cell into the neck and cuffs when the LEO squats then stands up again.”

Add some sweat, he said, and you’ve got a walking Petri dish of culturing fungi.  Not a good scenario to say the very least. 

“Officers track the fungal spores back to their squads on their body, their clothing and gear, then contaminate their lockers and personal vehicles.  I have spoken to former drug squad officers who have asthma which they believe resulted from their involvement with unprotected MGO investigations. Circumstantial yes, but certainly a reasonable assumption given the evidence,” Fulton said.

Fungal infections can potentially cause persistent illness so use caution whenever you’re working the scene of a MGO bust, or a facility in which those plants have been drying or even merely uprooted.  Fulton is hopeful — and I am too — that this reminder serves to help officers out there to remember that “the risks are not gone after the bad guys are cuffed and the traps dismantled.”

“The risk,” Fulton concluded, “is invisible and insidious, and just as deadly as a bullet.” 

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