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21 Months After Katrina, New Orleans Still Plagued by Illness


U.S. government forecasters say they expect a "very active" Atlantic hurricane season this year. That's bad news for the 153 million Americans who live on or near the nation's coastlines. Coastal communities are especially vulnerable to hurricanes, and the city of New Orleans, struck in 2005 by the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, is still at great risk.

The Gulf Coast Recovery and Rebuilding Caucus is a group of U.S. Congressional lawmakers who meet to discuss the problems that continue to plague people in the region nearly two years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the Gulf coast. Topping the caucus' agenda [May 22] was the continuing impact of that storm damage on public health in the region.

Representative Bennie Thompson invited medical experts to a briefing room in the U.S. Capitol for an update on the state of public health in the Gulf Coast. Thompson told the experts what they already knew. People living in trailers have been complaining of coughing, bloody noses, runny eyes and headaches.

The culprit turns out to be formaldehyde, a chemical carcinogen found in particleboards in trailer floors and cabinets. Tom Sinks, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia says CDC has made recommendations on how best to vent the government-supplied trailers for the 86,000 people still living in them. He says the issue of formaldehyde must be considered prior to deployment of trailers in response to the next disaster. "It should be part of our planning so we don't recreate the problem."

Associate professor of environmental health Louis Hall from Mississippi Valley State University directed caucus attention to his study of sediments submerged by floodwaters. Hall took samples from swimming pools, baptismal pools in flooded churches and graveyards. "On tombstones when the water recedes it leaves soil" he says.

Hall expressed particular concern about the lingering effects of the toxic stew of chemicals and fecal matter spread widely by New Orleans' floodwaters. Hall said that while he did find a variety of chemicals in floodwater samples, toxicity levels were low and none were carcinogenic.

Hall's findings echo a large sediment study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The work confirms results reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that pathogens first detected in New Orleans floodwaters had returned to pre-hurricane levels.

Hall says a more pressing public health issue is water quality in rural areas not served by public water systems. "They get their water from underground wells. And all these chemicals and other material are getting in that water system."

It's a problem that Hall recommended for further study.

Congressman Thompson then turned the caucus' attention to the problem of storm debris that remains in New Orleans and in other Gulf coast cities. "What I have seen over the last year, year and a half is that we just put everything in a hole -- paint, petroleum products, wood products -- everything in the same place."

Maureen Lichtveld, who heads the Department of Environmental Health at Tulane University in New Orleans, says the real danger in all this widely scattered debris comes from the dust particles it throws off. She is most worried about the smaller particles that get into the lungs.

Lichtveld is leading a new study on how children with asthma are affected when they return to moldy, flood-damaged homes. "Now what happens if somebody is allergic and will react to formaldehyde and at the same time reacts to mold and at the same time has asthma?" Lichtveld says these are the long-term environmental health issues that need to be addressed.

At the close of the caucus, Lichtveld reminded the Congressional lawmakers that no regulations or standards exist for indoor pollutants like mold or formaldehyde. She says she hopes studies like hers can lead to better-informed public health policies in response to disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

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