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Study explores potential cannabis related health concerns to protect industry workers

The University of Washington’s Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences helps create safer workplace conditions, including for the state’s growing cannabis industry.  (Getty Images)
The University of Washington’s Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences helps create safer workplace conditions, including for the state’s growing cannabis industry. (Getty Images)
By Theresa Tanner EVERCANNABIS Writer

The University of Washington’s Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, or DEOHS, is seeking cannabis users and non-users who do not work in the cannabis industry to participate in a research study to explore potential health risks, including respiratory symptoms and cannabis allergy, associated with cannabis use.

A previous study explored exposure and health data of 20 workers at two indoor cannabis farms. The results found that about 70% of workers reported work-related respiratory symptoms; of those workers, 45% had mildly impaired lung function and 30% had allergic sensitivity to cannabis, based on their response to skin prick testing.

But because many of the workers were also users of cannabis, it was not possible to determine if the health effects were a result of workplace exposure or personal use. The results of the new study will be compared to the original study results to determine what measures may be necessary to help employers control and reduce worker exposure.

Part of UW’s School of Public Health, DEOHS trains students to conduct research and examine the relationship between exposures and health, explained DEOHS professor Christopher Simpson, in a phone interview; Simpson is also the assistant chair for Research and Faculty Engagement and the director of the cannabis exposure study.

“We’re typically looking at hazardous chemicals, in both the environment and the workplace, as well as microbiological hazards … we’ve done a lot of work with COVID-19 this year,” Simpson said.

The department is partially funded by Washington workers’ compensation fund taxes to make sure that workplaces are safe to prevent worker injury and illness.

“When Washington was one of the first states to legalize adult recreational cannabis, it created a new legal industry in the state but almost nothing known about potential hazards for workers,” Simpson said. “It’s our department’s responsibility to help workers and employers in this new industry sector understand what exposures might be hazardous.”

DEOHS researchers began meeting with cannabis industry employers and workers to learn about their work processes and identify potential risks of the industry,

For example, researchers identified UV radiation as a potential risk of work at indoor grow facilities that used high intensity grow lights. They then found that workers at outdoor farms actually experienced higher amounts of UV radiation than their indoor counterparts.

The results helped develop best practices for employers to reduce UV radiation exposure for workers.

Simpson hopes that if the current study exploring respiratory symptoms and cannabis allergies finds that cannabis industry workers are more like to experience these health complications as a result of their work, then they can help employers find ways to reduce and control those exposures, such as reducing employee exposure to cannabis dust.

“Conversely, if we find that there is a high prevalence of cannabis allergy among users who are not exposed at work, that has implications for how one uses cannabis in a healthy way,” Simpson noted. “It would highlight the need to help us understand how people develop allergies, and what can be done reduce to sensitivity.”

Simpson also hopes the results of the study will lead to additional federal funding to expand the initial worker study by testing more cannabis workers throughout Washington and Oregon to verify findings.

The study is seeking volunteers in the Seattle area who can have their lung function and allergic sensitivity tested at a UW clinic; participants will receive their results. Participants will also answer a questionnaire about any related respiratory symptoms and their employment. Study subjects do receive compensation for their participation.

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