Subra says returning residents haven't been told the full range of health risks associated with post-Katrina cleanup. She provides technical assistance on environmental issues to Southern Mutual Help Association, a private organization founded in 1969 in New Iberia to aid distressed rural communities. When Hurricane Katrina hit, SMHA partnered with Oxfam America doctors and relief workers and immediately created a Rural Recovery Task Force to assess the situation.
Subra and Oxfam workers traveled by car on Sept. 15 to Chalmette, Meraux and Violet in St. Bernard Parish, where Subra has done a great deal of environmental work on the impact of the petro-chemical industries located along the Mississippi River.
She took samples of floodwaters and drying sludge that caked the communities ' and was horrified. "Preliminary results indicate toxic heavy metals, petroleum'based organics and bacteria from untreated sewage," she says. "Remember, this sludge is the bottom sediment of all these lakes and bays that have been contaminated for a very long time. That sludge is now sitting all over people's yards, people's houses, and vehicles."
On Monday, Sept. 12, St. Bernard Parish President Henry "Junior" Rodriguez announced in a meeting at the state capitol that the parish would be uninhabitable for six months to a year. But by Saturday, Sept. 17, Rodriguez was allowing re-entry into St. Bernard Parish.
On Sept. 18, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals issued a press release urging precautions for people returning to St. Bernard Parish. "Our recommendations have been very specific," says DHH spokesman Bob Johannsen. "It is not now the time to return."
"We are very concerned about the safety of anyone returning to the area at this time," DHH Secretary Dr. Fred Cerise says in the release. The department's release states that children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems not return. It also recommends protective clothing, tetanus shots and the bandaging of existing scrapes and wounds. "Disease surveillance conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and DHH in New Orleans area has confirmed that unintentional injuries pose the greatest current health risk for those remaining in the area," Cerise concludes.
It has been widely reported that floodwaters and the sediment they left behind have high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. Health problems from the bacteria can cause diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. But what Subra is most worried about is the combination of bacteria, mold, and the heavy metals and organic compounds from contaminated water bottoms that now cover St. Bernard Parish. "The chemicals are in the water; they're in the sludge," she says.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality have also been testing the area.
Rodriguez says that predictions of environmental contamination haven't panned out. "We did get a favorable report on air pollution," he says. But he hasn't heard any reports on chemical content in the sludge. "Not a word from EPA or DEQ about that. We're supposed to get something today or tomorrow." Rodriguez urges anyone coming back to the parish to wear boots, overalls, gloves and masks. He also has a team of doctors providing emergency medical treatment in the ExxonMobil refinery administrative building in Chalmette. "We haven't seen any medical problems," he says.
St. Bernard Parish Homeland Security Director and Office of Emergency Preparedness Dr. Paul Verrette says all the testing indicates the environmental conditions are not as bad as predicted. "All we're finding is E. coli bacteria," he says. "Good hand-washing technique should prevent any problem with that. There is a mold problem. What we recommend is a respirator. But any kind of mask will do. Asthmatics may experience irritation and bronchial spasms. Other than that, it's not particularly bad."
Verrette also says warnings about heavy metals and organic compounds in the sludge are overblown. "We have scientific data from the military and the government that doesn't bear that out," he notes. "Still, from a medical standpoint it's better not to expose yourself. But if they want to take the risk ' the main thing is aeration, open the windows and doors. And it's better not to be here more than four to six hours."
Only a few of the heavy metals exceed acceptable standards, according to sampling results posted on the EPA Web site. "The levels of metals detected were below levels that would be expected to produce adverse health effects," reads the report. "Some samples had slightly elevated arsenic and lead levels. The level of lead detected is typical of that found in urban areas. Volatile organic compounds were detected at very low levels. VOCs are not expected to persist in sediment due to their high vapor pressures and will dissipate or volatilize into the air. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were also detected at levels below that which would be expected to produce adverse health effects." The report defines PAHs as a group of more than 100 different chemicals that are formed during the incomplete burning of coal, oil and gas, garbage, or other organic substances like tobacco or charbroiled meat. It says they are commonly found in the environment.
But no one is looking at the cumulative effects or the long-term impact, Subra says. "At Meraux, you have a big spill from Murphy Oil. On Judge Perez Drive it's sky high levels of benzene and toluene in the air, and yet they let the people go into those areas. They're letting the people go in those residential areas where the air is bad. This is a political response to people desperate to go in. That's what they're folding to. And the people shouldn't be going in. And they shouldn't be bringing the children in, and they shouldn't be bringing the elderly in."
The SMHA team includes Dr. Miriam Aschkenasy, an emergency room physician from Boston Medical Center recruited by Oxfam to join the task force. Her credentials include a master's in public health from Harvard, hazardous materials training and international experience in emergency response and public health issues.
Allowing the public back into the sludge-coated communities is the wrong thing to do, Aschkenasy maintains. "You're going to set yourself up for a public health disaster," she says. "This sludge is going to dry and become dust, and they are going to breathe it in. You're going to see a lot of lung problems, asthma and allergies."
Short-term effects will probably include skin infections as a result of cuts, and exposure to mold has the potential to cause rashes, Aschkenasy says. But not knowing what is in the sludge and dust in people's houses is the biggest danger. "Nausea and vomiting can come from inhaling chemicals, or it could be from bacteria. You're going to have a hard time differentiating." DHH recommends Hepatitis A and B, and tetanus shots to prevent disease from bacteria. But according to Aschkenasy, there is no antidote for what residents are breathing in with the dust. "Most of the things Wilma's finding, the chemicals ' you can't vaccinate against them." The possible long-term effects are unknown. "Infertility, miscarriages, possibly cancer," she speculates. "Nobody knows what the effects are going to be. The bottom line ' if they don't have to return home, they shouldn't."
Subra had hoped to do a thorough evaluation before residents were let back into the parishes. "That part of the quick response didn't work," she says. "You're going to have them back in there getting contaminated, getting sick, and there's no open hospital, there's no clinic, there's no first aid station. It's ludicrous to have let them in without any kind of planning."
SMHA representatives acknowledge the political and personal pressures for residents to return and survey damage, and are trying to prevent further health risks. The organization recently assembled more than 200 "Katrina kits" that include protective gear, masks, eye protection, medical supplies and garbage bags to dispose of contaminated items upon leaving the parish. They hoped that the mandatory evacuation of the parish during Hurricane Rita would allow them to meet with officials this week and have the kits in place at parish checkpoints before residents returned again. But St. Bernard Parish residents began streaming back into the parish at 6 a.m. Monday, Sept. 26.
"This is unbelievable," says Subra.
Mike Harson's coffers show the advantage of incumbency.
The Lafayette City-Parish Council will vote on an ordinance for final adoption Tuesday that, if approved, would give the city the green light to take over a stretch of Verot School Road from the state Department of Transportation and Development.
The Louisiana Association of Educators filed a lawsuit challenging the $60 million in spending through Louisiana's public school financing formula.
He's been out of office for nearly a decade, but former U.S. Sen. John Breaux is back on the campaign trail, urging voters to support his one-time colleague, Democrat Mary Landrieu.
The unresolved fate of the ashes left behind after Ebola waste was destroyed in Texas highlights the problem U.S. hospitals and communities could face in disposing of their own waste.
While much of the talk was about whether New Orleans could win a big game — or any game, for that matter — on the road, the conversation in the Saints' locker room was about something completely different.
State health officials told thousands of doctors planning to attend a tropical diseases meeting this weekend in New Orleans to stay away if they have been to certain African countries or have had contact with an Ebola patient in the last 21 days.
Republicans are calling on Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu to apologize after she suggested Thursday that President Barack Obama's deep unpopularity in the South is partly tied to race.
Compared to the rest of the country, Lafayette has it pretty good when it comes to the cost and speed of our Internet.
Hello Kitty turns 40; police ambush suspect caught; Knicks surprise Cavs and more national and international news for Friday, October 31, 2014.
Friday's Blogs from the Bog!
The Lafayette City-Parish Council will consider on Tuesday a revised plan to the transform a block in Downtown Lafayette into a mixed-use residential-retail-commercial development that doesn’t include giving title to the property to the Lafayette Public Trust Finance Authority, an arrangement the council rejected earlier this month.
Trying to combat the national undertones of Louisiana's U.S. Senate race, Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu is traveling the state this week on a sort of pork celebration tour, telling voters about the projects and aid she's delivered to Louisiana.
Ever thought that big, pink Gulf coast shrimp you ordered at the restaurant or bought from the store didn't taste juicy or salty enough? Maybe it wasn't from the Gulf.
The state treasurer won't sign financial documents needed for $200 million in borrowing or for a refinancing of existing debt until he believes they accurately explain the surplus disagreement.
Bill Cassidy voted for 97 percent of the bills signed by Barack Obama.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is joining South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on her campaign bus tour.
A New Iberia man has been sentenced to life in prison for killing a 4-year-old girl and scalding her 3-year-old brother.
A district judge decided Wednesday against sanctioning attorney/school board candidate Dawn Morris for her behind-the-scenes role in a lawsuit against Mark Cockerham.
Secretary of State Tom Schedler says Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration may have improperly destroyed records in the state employee health insurance program, in the middle of a heavily-criticized rewrite of benefit plans.
Paper cites the former ADA's "experience as a prosecutor, his demonstrated integrity, and his ideas for reshaping the [DA's] office" in urging voters to support Keith Stutes Nov. 4.
Louisiana officials have sent a letter to the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene un-inviting members of the group who have recently been to ebola-affected West African countries from attending the group’s annual conference in New Orleans next week.
Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints have to find a way to win on the road if they plan to take over first place in the NFC South.
"It is obvious that Louisiana economic performance has not outperformed the South or the United States as a whole and, in fact, has substantially underperformed..."
A state district judge said he will rule Friday on a preliminary injunction to keep some charter schools from receiving $60 million through Louisiana's public school financing formula.