5 Uncovers

Feb 7, 2013 12:24 PM by Andy Koen

5 Uncovers: invisible health threat from indoor marijuana

COLORADO SPRINGS - When police officers remove marijuana plants from indoor grow operations, they are encouraged to suit up in protective clothing. Respirators, Tyvex body suits, rubber gloves and even eye protection are used to protect the officer's health.

What is so dangerous about pot plants?

Mold.

Doctor John Martyny, Ph.D. is a retired industrial hygienist and associate professor of occupational medicine for National Jewish Health. He was the lead author of a study titled Health Effects Associated with Indoor Marijuana Grow Operations.

Martyny and other doctors and scientists followed police officers on raids at 24 marijuana grow-houses. Along with dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide, they also found penicillium mold spore counts that were between 10 and 500 times above the normal amount.

"In my opinion, the problems that we found aren't marijuana problems," Martyny said. "They're having a greenhouse in your house problems."

Even short term exposure to mold levels that high can quickly cause headaches and sinus pain. Prolonged exposure can cause scar tissue to form in the lungs, asthma attacks and for people with weakened immune systems, bacterial infections.

"Essentially what's happening is you're just providing an incubator and growing mold," he said.

The penicillium spores are invisible to the naked eye even in dense concentrations. Martyny says they can easily travel from room to room, between apartments and townhomes.

As a rule of thumb, "if you can smell the marijuana you are actually getting exposed to the particulate also," he said.

Under Colorado law, there are virtually no protections from this kind health hazard. In fact, the opposite is true. Amendment 64 guarantees every adult in the state the right to own six marijuana plants. Those who are designated as medical marijuana caregivers can grow up to 30.

What's more, there is no way to tell whether a home marijuana grows is legitimate or not. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment maintains the medical marijuana registry, but all patient and caregiver information is considered confidential.

Zoning laws in Colorado Springs only apply to the large commercial medical marijuana grow operations. In fact, those big grows are actually safer because the business owners must be licensed and submit to annual inspections and reviews.

State licensing standards require marijuana growers and the manufacturers of marijuana infused product to "take reasonable measures and precautions" to store the drug in a way that prevents the rapid growth of microorganisms.

Don McKay, the co-owner of Southern Colorado Medical Marijuana, says growers like himself have a financial incentive to keep their business clean and mold free.

"It's our business, we want to provide safe clean product to our patients and because of that we take the extra effort to make sure everything is running properly."

McKay gave us a tour of his operation and pointed out the various vents and humidity controls they use. He takes issue with Martyny's study because the samples came from "illegal" grow operations.

"They're trying to be clandestine so they're not so good about letting the air out and they're trying to keep the smell down, keep it contained in the house so that they don't get caught," he said.

Growers like McKay must also pass building inspections. Jack Arrington is the Chief Plumbing and Mechanical Inspector for the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department. He says universal building code manuals make no mention of indoor marijuana grow operations.

The closest comparison would be a greenhouse for a floral shop, but greenhouses don't allow for year round growing. Additionally, the licensing standards require lengthy security measures that are better applied to warehouses.

The code currently used for medical marijuana grower is similar to what's used for a computer server room. Arrington says the specific ventilation requirements are minimal.

"Code does everything for a minimum; we want a minimum amount in there that can be safe," Arrington said. "We like to see everything go beyond code, above code."

And many growers do exceed those minimums simply to let off excess heat created by the grow lights. But as for home marijuana grows, Arrington says the ventilation is very likely to be inadequate because it's not a commercial operation.

"When we inspect a home, we inspect it as a residence because that's what it's classified as," Arrington said.

The Martyny study shows elevated mold levels in homes with grow rooms that have as few as 30 plants. He believes even the commercial growers are at a greater likelihood having mold because of the large number of plants and the building materials that were used.

"I personally would be very concerned if, especially if the business was rigged up like we've seen businesses, I would be very concerned and I would be surprised if OSHA wouldn't go out on a complaint," Martyny said.

McKay says he has never had an industrial hygienist inspect his grow rooms for mold, but he feels confident in the measures he's taken.

"We bleach things and we clean things very carefully," McKay said. What's more, his vents use ultraviolet radiation to filter outdoor mold from the air coming into the building.

A spokesperson for the Occupational Safety Hazard Administration offered no direct comment on the likelihood of mold in the commercial marijuana grows. A statement to News 5 reads: "If OSHA receives a complaint and jurisdiction is established, which would depend on the nature of the allegations, it would be handled in accordance with OSHA's complaint processing procedures."

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