Organigram email says cooling towers had 'elevated bacteria'
Cannabis producer says towers were shut down, cleaned and didn't affect products
Organigram, a cannabis producer in Moncton, told its employees in August that several of its cooling towers were shut down and cleaned after "elevated bacteria counts" were found, according to an email obtained by CBC News.
The company's director of human resources sent the email to all of its employees the evening of Aug. 13. The email doesn't say what type of bacteria was found. It said an ongoing monitoring program would involve regular Health Department checks.
The email was sent around the same time New Brunswick health officials say cooling towers in western Moncton were pinpointed as the source of an outbreak of legionnaires' disease and were shut down and cleaned. The province has refused to identify the source location.
"Following acceptable test results over the past 18 months due to preventative maintenance systems … for all cooling towers, we received an unexpected report of elevated bacteria counts in our NEW cooling tower system for Phase 4A," the Organigram email says.
"Please note this system is external and does not impact air quality within the facility, or the health of our products."
Sixteen people who live or work in the Moncton area became ill with the severe form of pneumonia. The airborne illness, which can be deadly, sent 15 of those people to hospital. Public Health revealed the outbreak on Aug. 1 and announced it was over on Sept. 12.
Organigram has not confirmed or denied it was the source of the outbreak.
The company did not provide an interview. Ray Gracewood, the company's senior vice-president of marketing and communications, said Organigram generally doesn't comment on internal communications.
"Likewise, as public health has previously instructed, if you have additional questions related to legionnaires', they should be directed back to public health," Gracewood wrote.
Bruce Macfarlane, a government spokesperson, said Public Health can't comment on the email.
Cooling towers are components of large air-conditioning systems. Phase 4A is one of the expansions of the production facility off English Drive in the Moncton industrial park.
The company has become a major supplier of marijuana products to the legal market.
The province's refusal to specify where the outbreak began has angered several of those who became sick.
Richard Melanson, 65, spent a week at the Moncton Hospital in July with legionnaires' disease. He's been off work since then recovering, sometimes feeling depressed.
"I want the truth. I want to know — and I have that right — who made me sick, who almost killed me," Melanson said. "Please tell me, please tell me, all the people who took care of me, all the people at the hospital, all the tears that I shed, all the people at my side.
"Somebody knew. … There's people who know who it is. How come I don't know?"
He said he's afraid to return to his workplace, just down the block from Organigram.
"Whoever made me sick should be responsible for what took place," Melanson said.
Dr. Yves Léger, a regional medical officer of health, told reporters Sept. 5 that testing had confirmed cooling towers at a business in western Moncton were the source of the outbreak. He cited Aug. 13 as the day the towers were shut down and disinfected.
The Aug. 13 Organigram email to employees says the process of flushing and cleaning the towers had started "last night." As of Aug. 13, it says "supporting agencies" had tested and confirmed the systems were safe.
When he announced on Sept. 12 that the outbreak was over, Léger said part of the reason he won't release the name of the site is that it "does not pose a risk to the public anymore."
"And I would actually say that it is the safest site in town based on what we know and how often we follow up on that site."
Asked directly by CBC that day whether the outbreak started at Organigram, Léger said: "As I've mentioned before, and I will say again, we're not providing the source of the outbreak at this point in time."
Health Canada won't comment
Health Canada, which regulates cannabis producers, referred questions back to the provincial Health Department.
Legionella bacteria are present in many natural waterways, but cooling towers have been pinpointed as the source of many outbreaks.
Mist from the cooling towers that contains the bacteria can be carried into the surrounding environment, where people breathe it in. The illness is contracted by breathing in the mist. It does not spread person-to-person.