What Prisons and the Solar Industry Have in Common in California

It's all that land around the prison (Avenal State Prison seen here) that carries a health hazard, the same one that affects solar manufacturers. (Buzzbo/Flickr)

It’s all that land around the prison (Avenal State Prison seen here) that carries a health hazard, the same one that affects solar manufacturers. (Buzzbo/Flickr)

Normally, you wouldn’t put “prisons” and “solar” together when thinking about a significant health problem hitting California. But the two prisons in question are in the dry, dusty Central Valley. The solar manufacturing is on huge construction sites in the California desert. Anyone who lives in those areas of California might quickly add these two clues together and come up with an answer:

Valley Fever.

Valley Fever can cause something like a nasty flu, but some people, especially those with compromised immune systems, can die. It is not contagious. Instead the illness spreads when people inhale fungal spores carried in the dirt by the wind.

California’s prison system has been fighting a losing battle with Valley Fever since 2006. In particular, inmates in two prisons along the I-5 corridor are right in harms way.

Now the federal receiver in charge of health care in California’s prisons has ordered state officials to move 3,300 inmates out, as Julie Small detailed on The California Report Wednesday morning. Inmates at higher risk include those over age 55, people undergoing chemotherapy or anyone with an illness that compromises the immune system, such as HIV/AIDS.

This move would be a “logistical nightmare” for prison officials, Small reported. The 3,300 inmates are roughly 40 percent of the two prisons’ population. Still the directive is effective immediately and has the additional headache of coming just days before state corrections officials are to submit a plan to federal court on reducing the state prison population by 9,000 inmates by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, 28 workers at two large solar power plant construction sites in eastern San Luis Obispo County have also come down with Valley Fever. As the Los Angeles Times reports, officials from the California Department of Public Health visited the sites two months ago.

This type of construction involves scraping and clearing ground to make room for thousands of acres of solar panels. Dust goes flying. From the Times:

Although respirators can prevent valley fever, workers laboring in harsh desert heat find the large commercial masks uncomfortable and are reluctant to wear them, Simonin said. He said the developer has done good job keeping dust down on the site.

The threat of acquiring the respiratory illness extends to residents living near expansive construction sites. That risk is rising given the scope of the renewable energy boom centered in the state. Scores of solar projects are planned for millions of acres across California’s Mojave Desert and elsewhere.

People who work outside — in construction and agriculture — are at highest risk of contracting Valley Fever. And incidence is way up. Over the last dozen years, cases are up nearly 800 percent, according to the CDC. 

Learn more:

Prison Health Advocates Call for More Steps to Stop Valley Fever Outbreak (KVPR)