Portable generators at rural cannabis farms are being blamed for a series of deaths in Mendocino County, where at least four men — and likely a fifth — have died from carbon monoxide poisoning in the last five years.
All five deaths involved small, gas-fueled generators, mainly used to power music or charge cellphones in temporary greenhouses where the men worked and sometimes slept, Mendocino County Sheriff’s Lt. Shannon Barney said.
“With any kind of gas-operated machinery inside a closed environment, people run the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning,” Barney said. “The inside fills up with poisonous gases they aren’t aware are harming them. They’re overwhelmed or pass out and ultimately die from a lack of oxygen.”
In all of the Mendocino County deaths, the workers were using small, Honda 2000‑series generators in enclosed places. “They’re so small and portable I think people take them inside these covered areas to charge their electronic devices,” Barney said. “They just don’t realize it’ll have the same effect” as a larger generator.
A longtime Mendocino County cannabis grower and advocate called the deaths a tragedy, saying they put a spotlight on the need to improve working conditions for cannabis workers.
“It definitely highlights the need for proper safety training and making sure employees are given the ability to know the potential hazards and safety issues around any tools and equipment they’re going to make use of,” said Casey O’Neill, policy chair of the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance.
For about two decades, cannabis workers have had no state regulation guiding work conditions. After California voters approved commercial cultivation in 2016, state officials have been drafting regulations to protect workers. Cal/OSHA, which sets and enforces workplace safety standards, offered a workshop for cannabis cultivation operators last year, O’Neill said.
“Those types of practices are starting to happen,” he said. “Clearly in this case it’s not soon enough. It’s a heartbreaking thing.”
The most recent death was in Covelo on March 31. Final autopsy and toxicology reports are pending, but the initial investigation showed Jose Mejia, 40, of Covelo, likely died from carbon monoxide produced by a portable generator running in a grow room lined with plastic sheeting.
“He was running music. It (the generator) is a handy little gadget. You just can’t have them inside,” Barney said.
It was the latest in a string of similar deaths in Mendocino County starting in 2014. All five died on rural cannabis farms; four died in temporary greenhouses built with PVC pipe and covered in plastic, with a gas-powered generator running inside.
Two men died in the first case. Their bodies were found May 13, 2014, at property on Woodman Creek Road in Laytonville. The men were identified as Filipe Guzman, 32, and Abraham Castillo, 28, both of Laytonville.
One year later, on May 15, two men were sleeping inside a Laytonville greenhouse on Iron Peak Road with the portable generator running. One man died and the other narrowly avoided death when he awakened about 1:30 a.m. and headed outside to relieve himself.
“He ended up collapsing outside. It was just a near miss,” Barney said.
The man went back in to check on his friend, finding him apparently unconscious or already dead and called for help. Gerald Vitelli, 22, of Fullerton, died of carbon monoxide poisoning, authorities said.
This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com, also part of the Sonoma Media Investments news network.