I was contacted yesterday by Huffington Post Canada editor Natalie Stechyson to comment about the circumstances surrounding the death of Justin Mathews, age 33 of Edmonton Alberta Canada, which comments were published here: Expert Sounds Alarm On Hidden Nut Allergens After Workplace Death. I extend my sincere condolences to Justin’s family. I share their hope that by discussing the circumstances of his untimely death, no one else will die in this extremely unfortunate way.
Justin was allergic to tree nuts. He walked into a work site to test its air quality following sand blasting or media blasting to remove lead paint. His family advises that after 20 minutes inside the building, he went outside feeling unable to catch his breath, and then he collapsed.
It turns out that the blasting material used was walnut shells instead of a regular silica based product, so the air would have had a high concentration of airborne nut allergen, and Justin had no knowledge of this. His family has stated to the press, and I agree, that signage and material safety data sheets should be required when a top allergen is present in a substance used on site.
I pointed out to Ms. Stechyson that nut shells can be present in other building materials as well, such as non-slip paint, wood stains, flooring, counter tops and particle board. An excellent resource for allergens in non-food products is the blog Chemurgy and Allergens. Non-food products containing other allergens such as corn, milk, soy and sesame are also considered.
It breaks my heart to think of Justin beginning to feel unwell without any knowledge that he was inhaling his allergen. I expect he was confident that he hadn’t consumed or come in contact with nuts that day, so I imagine he would have soldiered on with his job and not considered that he was having an allergic reaction, let alone considered using epinephrine. In other words, through lack of allergen information, Justin had no opportunity to save himself.
Tragically, even if Justin had thought of using epinephrine, he didn’t have his EpiPens with him, the fire station where he was working didn’t have any on hand, and the first responders that arrived didn’t have epinephrine either. EpiPens are a behind the counter medication in Canada, which can be purchased directly from the pharmacist without a prescription and easily included in a first aid kit. Due to the work of the Canadian Anaphylaxis Initiative, some fire trucks do stock epinephrine. It is my hope that many more will now follow suit to prevent tragedies like this, that each person with food allergies or asthma will carry two EpiPens at all times, and that every person reading this article will take one hour to learn anaphylaxis first aid (you can take a course by clicking here).
Despite receiving CPR, deprived of oxygen, 80% of Justin’s brain was dead by the time he arrived at the hospital. He was taken off life support and died five days later.
It provides some comfort to know that an Occupational Health and Safety investigation into Justin’s death is occurring, which must be completed within two years of the incident. My hope is that as Sabrina Shannon’s death from anaphylaxis and Ryan Gibbon’s death from asthma led to greater safety for children in Ontario schools, Justin Mathew’s death will lead to greater safety for allergic individuals on the work site. Perhaps we can all find some comfort in that.
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