Five die of carbon monoxide poisoning from generators at Mendocino County cannabis farms since 2014

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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.

The four deaths are all considered accidental. Investigators do not know whether the men were aware of the dangers or received any warnings about using the machines inside, Barney said.

A fifth man killed himself using a portable generator to produce carbon monoxide while he was inside a small, wooden shed, Barney said. The body of the 39‑year‑old Philo man was found at a cannabis farm off remote Black Oak Ridge between Philo and Boonville. Detectives determined the Oct. 7, 2016, death was a suicide.

Gas‑powered generators are typically packaged with warnings about carbon monoxide, a clear, odorless gas produced when fuel is burned in cars, furnaces, stoves, water heaters, grills and other devices powered by gas, oil and coal. Portable generators should never be used inside a building, even with doors and windows open, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The gas kills without warning, and every year hundreds of people die and thousands fall ill from it, according to the CDC. Many deaths involve malfunctioning heaters or gas appliances. From 2004 to 2013, carbon monoxide deaths involving portable generators totaled 657, with most of those deaths coming from generator use during power outages, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission reported. Most of the deaths occurred at home; of those 526 fatalities, 15 happened when the generator was placed outside or near an open window, door or vent.

Authorities say portable generators should be operated outside and at least 20 feet away from windows, doors and vents. People are urged to install a battery‑operated or battery‑backup carbon monoxide detector in a hallway near bedrooms, monitor batteries to ensure they are operational and never ignore a beeping alarm.

In Sonoma County Tuesday, at least two beeping detectors generated 911 calls. And since April 1, 21 people have called 911 to seek help, worried about their chirping carbon monoxide alarm, according to emergency dispatch records. Firefighters are dispatched to each call with equipment to check for gas levels. The problem typically stems from malfunctioning heaters or other gas‑powered appliances.

In Lake County there has been one death in the same time period of Mendocino’s five deaths, with a 2014 fatality in Clearlake involving a heater, according to sheriff’s officials.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@rossmannreport

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