Officials study valley fever outbreak at SLO County solar power projects

Los Angeles TimesMay 1, 2013 

Epidemiologists are investigating an outbreak of valley fever that has sickened 28 workers at two large solar power construction sites in San Luis Obispo County.

Staff from the California Department of Public Health, and investigators from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health and San Luis Obispo County visited the sites near the Carrizo Plain two months ago, officials said.

They identified the sites as the Topaz Solar Farm and California Valley Solar Ranch, two large-scale photovoltaic power plants whose construction often requires considerable scraping and clearing to make way for thousands of acres of solar panels.

Valley fever, also known as Coccidioidomycosis, is contracted by breathing in fungal spores released when desert soils are disturbed. The illness is prevalent in many areas of the California desert and is common among agricultural workers and construction crews. It is not contagious.

Of those who contract the illness, less than half develop flu-like symptoms that include a cough, fever, chest pains and muscle aches that can persist for weeks. In extreme cases, valley fever can cause death, usually among patients with compromised immune systems.

State officials did not provide details about who contracted the illness at the solar sites, or where they live, citing medical privacy laws. But at least one case involves an electrical worker at the California Valley project.

Mark Simonin, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 639 in San Luis Obispo, said the electrician was digging into the ground with a claw hammer and inhaled dust. Simonin said the man became ill and a subsequent blood test confirmed valley fever.

The worker required breathing therapy treatment but didn't miss any time off the job, Simonin said.

Although respirators can prevent valley fever, workers laboring in harsh desert heat find the large commercial masks uncomfortable and are reluctant to wear them, Simonin said. He said the developer has done good job keeping dust down on the site.

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