Tech hazards often not recognized

Study shows danger from chemicals for ill-prepared volunteers responding to major disasters.

BY ERICA WALTERS | KINGSTON, TN | June 10, 2009



"The sludge was highly contaminated with toxic heavy metals and known cancer causing semi volatile organic chemicals and dioxins"

—Wilma Subra


As sludge poured through the valleys of northeast Tennessee earlier this year, saturating grounds, entering waterways, and leaving residents stranded in the communities of Kingston and Herriman, TN, The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) initially maintained the sludge was a nuisance but not dangerous.

A dike had given way causing 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic sludge to flood out of a processing plant in Kingston into nearby communities and waterways. TVA claimed control over the emergency help effort and insisted the chemicals were not hazardous to the community. However, sediment testing and the sudden showing up of dead fish proved otherwise.

Most major news outlets dropped the story after a week, but the tragedy is ongoing according to Wilma Subra, owner of the Subra Company, committed to protecting the environment and the health and safety of citizens. Subra, who works with faith-based disaster response organizations like the United Church of Christ in responding to technological disasters, has degrees in microbiology and biology.

“The communities were exposed to the sludge directly via skin contact and inhalation,” Subra said. “The sludge was highly contaminated with toxic heavy metals and known cancer causing semivolatile organic chemicals and dioxins.”

These known cancer-causing chemicals were also found in sediment Subra tested after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast.

As a result of her tests, she consulted with faith-based organizations who later sent volunteers into the region.

Subra’s sediment testing results have given rise to speculation about the quality of health the affected communities may encounter in the future. Her testing suggested that inhalation from the toxic chemicals within the early days of these and similar disasters can produce acute diseases and with the passing of time, more chronic illness are likely to be present in the community.

In New Orleans, Subra documented her findings.

“The damage is severe and widespread; the silence is deafening,” she said. “The smell of death frequently slams into your face. When people are allowed to return, they will be met with massive destruction or total absence of their homes, businesses and places of work.”

As a disaster responder, Subra also focuses on the short term and long term health defects a community may incur after a disaster. In the cases of Hurricane Katrina and the Tennessee toxic sludge spill, Subra is concerned with the tracking of health problems for the people who came into contact with the affected communities in the early stages of disaster response.

Subra said that one of the major problems following Hurricane Katrina hit was the sheer number of volunteers who flooded the contaminated area without appropriate preparations.

She said she is concerned that many of those volunteers will develop future health problems as a result of their exposure to the potential toxins there and in Tennessee.

Subra said both disasters highlight the need for tracking processes to document the health histories of disaster survivors and immediate responders. Such a process could help develop safety techniques for both volunteers and survivors in the cases of future technological disasters.


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