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Experts cite disaster health risks

The environmental health impact of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina is serious.

BY HEATHER MOYER | WASHINGTON, D.C. | October 21, 2005


"We focus on New Orleans because it was so densely populated, but there are other little towns that are worse off."

—Dr. Jimmy Guidry


The environmental health impact of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina is serious and communities should be prepared, said speakers at a Institute of Medicine conference Thursday.

"Environmental Public Health Impacts of Disasters: Hurricane Katrina" was sponsored by the Roundtable of Environmental Health Sciences, Research and Medicine. Speakers discussed a range of topics, from the challenges Hurricane Katrina created to how communities can be better prepared for such disasters.

In New Orleans, health officials are contending with the chemicals and bacteria being found in floodwater and lingering sediment. Chemicals such as arsenic, lead and petroleum products have been found in tests done by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"The EPA and (Centers for Disease Control) concluded that exposures are not expected to cause bad effects if proper protection is worn, so we've been checking to make sure residents are doing that," said Dr. Kevin Stephens, director of health for the New Orleans Health Department.

Stephens said the city is still learning more about the risks residents and workers face from cleaning up debris and just being in the formerly flooded areas.

"Our local health department has questions about long-term effects - what should we monitor? How should we monitor it? And what should our communication strategies be?" asked Stephens at the conference.

He added that he hopes continued cooperation with the EPA and other federal and state health agencies will assist to making sure residents and workers are safe.

The New Orleans Health Department is also monitoring sickness outbreaks, something Stephens said he was amazed happened rarely considering how many people were kept in such close-quarters. He said there was a respiratory illness outbreak in one city cleaning team two weeks after Katrina, but instituting a cleaning convention within the unit immediately brought down the cases of the illness.

Stephens added that the biggest health problem the agency is finding within the city right now are "unintentional injuries," such as residents falling off roofs and other cleanup mishaps.

Dr. Jimmy Guidry, state health officer and medical director for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, said it is important to give attention to other devastated areas besides New Orleans.

"We focus on New Orleans because it was so densely populated, but there are other little towns that are worse off," he said. "But there's not much left standing in St. Bernard Parish or Plaquemines Parish."

For Guidry, the challenge is rebuilding the health system in the devastated regions of the state where how many health professionals will return is unknown. Major hospitals in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana have been condemned or seriously damaged.

Many of Thursday's speakers brought up other health issues they worry may be ignored as time passes. In Louisiana, some of the debris is slated to be burned because there is so much. "How will that affect people and the environment?" asked Guidry.

Other health issues mentioned included the increase of mosquitoes and the possibility of West Nile Virus, long-term mental health, the increase of vermin that may carry disease, re-certifying restaurants and members of the food industry, drinking water supplies, wastewater plant repairs, mold and how it affects indoor air quality, and making sure recovery workers and residents are protected while cleaning up.

"We're going to have major issues with educating the public about mold risks," Guidry said. "And if workers get hurt or sick on the job, our medical infrastructure isn't there to help them."

Other agencies are making sure workers are properly trained before doing debris removal.

"A common denominator of all disasters is that you have a worker like a first responder or those in consequence management - Katrina is no different," said Max Keifer, associate director of emergency preparedness for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

"We're now worried about the influx of workers to Louisiana and the region who are looking for jobs. They may not be trained and we want to protect them. Some may be asked to do work they are not trained or outfitted for."

A scientist involved with the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the related air quality issues from the World Trade Center collapse also spoke at Thursday's conference. Dr. Paul Lioy of the Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine at Rutgers Univeristy had some words of advice for those planning the cleanup of the Gulf Coast.

"In New Orleans and the South you will have dust and it will be made up of all kinds of things," said Lioy. "We're still tearing down buildings (in New York City) because we can't clean them up. This will also be an issue the South will have to deal with."

Related to the dust, Lioy said that knowing its specific make-up is crucial to cleaning it up correctly. "Characterize your dust now, know what's in it and know it well. It's not just one single chemical, it's multiple toxins. And those toxins may not alone impact people, but they could react differently mixed together."

Lioy also advised those present to make sure no one is left out during the cleanup phase and to make sure responders and workers are equipped with respirators. Pointing to an image of Ground Zero cleanup workers with respirators resting around their necks, Lioy cautioned the conference-goers.

"One of the most serious issues after Sept. 11 was that no one wore respirators (during cleanup)," he explained. "You need to make sure that not only government workers and large contractors have them, but that everyone has them and wears them."

Conference speakers also addressed the issue of repopulating and rebuilding the hardest hit areas of New Orleans. Monique Harden, co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, said she worries that the low-income residents of the city will not be included in important discussions about the environmental risks of moving back.

"Communities need to be at the table in the talks about rebuilding," said Harden.

Noting that Hurricane Katrina exposed many failures within the environmental regulatory system, Harden said the EPA needs to explain their tests on the water and sediment.

"They say the environmental data is publicly accessible, but it's not for low-income residents. It's also not easily understood."

Harden also worries about the six EPA superfund sites in the city and other sites now newly contaminated by the floodwater. Harden showed the conference a photo of a vacant lot across from her home where workers were depositing sewage. None wore facemasks or gloves and she was confused as to why the lot - which the photos showed was now oozing sewage material into the street - was suddenly allowed to be a sewage disposal site.

"What we don't need is a blanket waiver of public health laws," said Harden. "We need to develop environmentally sustainable initiatives. What we need is the EPA convening monthly meetings with the community."

For Dr. Sandral Hullett, CEO of Jefferson Health System in Alabama, developing a trust within the community is the only way cleanup and rebuild plans can succeed. Hullet spoke about her work with the 10 poorest counties in Alabama, most of which suffered serious damage from the high winds and tornadoes Katrina spawned.

"You have to have the community be part of the process to be successful and have them not feel used," said Hullet.

Out of the devastation from Katrina can spring new partnerships, said other speakers. When the flooding inundated New Orleans, many major universities lost valuable research facilities. Dr. John McLachlan, a professor of environmental studies at Tulane and Xavier Universities, and some of his fellow researchers are now using his fifth-floor loft apartment in New Orleans as their research facility. Through that, he said, they came up with the idea of a major partnership to benefit everyone after Hurricane Katrina.

The Katrina Environmental Research and Restoration Network (KERRN) will be a network of researchers who share data and ideas crossing disciplinary and geographical boundaries to provide models on how to respond to major environmental disasters. He gave the example of one university already contacting him asking how they can do some research on the water contamination in the Mississippi near New Orleans. McLachlan said he connected that university up with another area university with a boat that is already out doing something similar.

"It is a network of skills and interests, we'll match research needs and skills," said McLachlan. "This will also ensure maximum benefit and avoid duplication of efforts. And it will help us pass on lessons learned to the next disaster."


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