October 22, 2017 8:38 pm
Updated: October 23, 2017 10:45 am

Edmonton man dies after inhaling walnut particles used in sandblasting

WATCH ABOVE: The family of a 33-year-old Edmonton man is sounding the alarm about the danger of airborne nut particles after he died when he was exposed to an allergen on a worksite. Sarah Kraus reports.

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The family of a man who died from his nut allergy while working at an Edmonton fire hall wants to warn others about the dangers of airborne nut particles in places you wouldn’t expect.

On Oct. 2, Justin Mathews went to work at the Rossdale fire station. He was there to test the air quality because another company had just been inside sandblasting old lead paint off the walls.

His family said he was inside the building for about 20 minutes when he started having trouble breathing, walked outside and collapsed.

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He went into anaphylactic shock.

“He inhaled probably a lot of walnut particles from the walnut blasting compound that was all over there,” explained Justin’s father, David Mathews.

David was told walnut shells are now being used in sandblasting because it’s environmentally friendly and healthier for workers than the silica sand used traditionally.

Justin’s mother believes her son didn’t know about the risk.

“I know sandblasting it is with the sand — never thought it would be with nuts,” Mabel Mathews said.

Justin developed his nut allergy when he was a child and all of his friends knew about it growing up.

“A few times he ate nuts and then I just [gave] him antihistamine and then he [was] fine,” Mabel said.

“It was controlled by not eating any nuts at all.”

First responders on scene at the Rossdale fire hall performed CPR until an ambulance arrived. He was rushed to the University of Alberta hospital, but it was too late.

“There was no oxygen going into the lungs or the brain, so the brain’s dead,” David said.

The Mathews family was told Justin would never recover from the brain damage. They pulled him off life support on Oct. 7. He was 33 years old.

READ MORE: Treating allergies with allergens: St. Joseph’s Hospital program praised for changing lives

500 people attended his funeral.

Justin’s three older sisters described their brother as having a magnetic personality.

“He was very kind and compassionate and funny,” said Sandra Mathews-Borzel.

Given the prevalence of nut allergies today, his family wants to see change in the way sandblasting and other such work is conducted.

“Nobody cared that there were nuts being used — a good [percentage of the] population is allergic to nuts and that doesn’t just mean food,” Justin’s sister, Shari Reklow, said.

“It was completely preventable, and it should never happen again.”

The Mathews want signs to be posted to warn people of when the product is being used. They believe if Justin had seen such a precaution, he wouldn’t have even entered the building that day.

Justin’s parents also want material safety data sheets on the product to warn people of the allergen.

“Take any label — ‘This may contain nuts’ — that’s all they have to do,” Mabel said.

His sisters would like to see EpiPens be more readily available. They don’t know where Justin’s was at the time he entered the fire hall, and the firefighters that tried to help him did not have one on hand.

“The firefighters need to be carrying it; maybe the first-aid kits need to have epinephrine in them,” said Joyce Mathews-Goossen.

READ MORE: Reality check: Is it safe to use an expired EpiPen in the event of anaphylaxis?

Two of Justin’s sisters also have severe nut allergies.

“In regards to my own allergy, I’m completely freaked out now,” Mathews-Goossen said.

The family is also urging anyone with allergies to make sure they carry their EpiPens and antihistamines at all times.

“There shouldn’t be another fatality. Nobody should be losing a son or a brother,” Mabel said.

Occupational Health and Safety has launched an investigation, calling this type of workplace death unusual.

“What the investigation wants to uncover is, were precautions taken that could have prevented this? Did everyone do their due diligence on site?” Alberta Labour spokesperson Trent Bancarz said.

There is no timeline on when the investigation will conclude.

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