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.
Despite sweeping changes enacted by Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration, the health insurance program for state workers and public school employees will have to use $88 million from its reserve fund to cover its costs this year.
The LPSB races are sure to get heated between now and Nov. 4, and with only 9 available seats, this year's field of 20 candidates will surely be wanting to set themselves apart from the crowd early; they'll get their chance next week, starting Tuesday with the kick-off of a three-day series of candidate forums.
Lawmakers say they've received complaints that waits have spiked, with people being forced to wait in line for more than an hour — and sometimes three hours — to handle routine tasks.
The campaign announced that Rep. Stuart Bishop of District 43 and Nancy Landry, District 31, have thrown their support behind the Naval Academy graduate and entrepreneur in his bid to unseat current Hunter Beasley in District 8.
A Lafayette man with an alleged taste for child porn was busted Thursday evening during a cyber crime sting launched by the Attorney General’s Office.
U.S. Rep. Vance McAllister says his chief of staff is on temporary leave after being booked with drunken driving.
It was a rare moment in Congress this week as Republicans briefly put aside partisanship in support of President Barack Obama's request to train and arm Syrian rebels, and while a number of Democrats opposed the measure, Louisiana's Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu found herself on the same side of the issue as her Republican challenger Rep. Bill Cassidy.
Home Depot breach bigger than Target; Alibaba IPO could be big; Rivers' last project and more national and international news for Friday, September 19, 2014.
Friday's Blogs from the Bog!
City-Parish President Joey Durel is asking the council to sign off on a resolution approving a pair of deals that would lead to razing the seedy Lesspay Motel at Four Corners to build a new police substation as well as transforming nearly a block Downtown where the old federal courthouse building now molders into a mixed-use development.
In 2013, the IRS — already the least popular governmental agency in the country — became the target of intense investigations after it was revealed that they had specifically and improperly scrutinized applications for tax-exempt status from organizations associated with the nascent Tea Party movement.
Improving the running game was "a point of emphasis" during the offseason and the results have manifested themselves in the form of substantially greater production.
Louisiana's health department said Wednesday that its evaluation of the state's Medicaid privatization was on target, despite criticism from the legislative auditor that it lacked key data and contained inconsistencies.
The feds converge on your office, seizing records on several employees as part of a pay-for-plea investigation. WWYD? If you’re Mike Harson, you give yourself a $12k raise.
It’s football season and after back-to-back winless weekends for the Saints and the Cajuns many citizens are finding it difficult to be civil much less happy. Well, chew on this.
Considering his repeated stays in the local penal system, David Narcisse Jr. should have known that having a semiautomatic shotgun, even one given to him by a friend, wasn’t the brightest of ideas.
A state district judge on Tuesday threw out a last-minute retirement hike lawmakers gave to the state police superintendent, ending a political firestorm over a pension boost passed without public scrutiny on the last day of the legislative session.
The House has passed a bill to increase oversight of veterans' hospitals under construction, following a report that some medical centers take three years longer to complete than estimated and cost an extra $366 million per project.
An obvious follow-up question for any Republican politician who accuses Democrats of being science deniers is one about science, to which Jindal bobbed and weaved like a welterweight champ.
The Lafayette City-Parish Council is expected to decide tonight (Tuesday) whether to go along with a proposal City-Parish President Joey Durel made in February’s State of the Parish Address and consolidate taxes for mosquito control and the parish health units into a broader tax program that would also cover animal control.
U.S. District Judge Richard Haik has dismissed Greg Davis’ lawsuit against the LPSB, yet in his ruling, the federal judge doesn’t bite his tongue in pointing out the "threat" being posed by certain board members.
Of all the political offices being contested throughout Lafayette Parish, the race for Broussard’s top police post has literally become one of the most heated.
A state district judge is deciding whether to issue an injunction against the enforcement of a last-minute retirement hike that lawmakers gave to the state police superintendent.
A new website is up for Louisiana's state government employees and retirees to choose their health insurance plans for next year, a choice they must make by October.
That fact that New Orleans led both games in the final 10 seconds of regulation, and lost each by a field goal or less, is of little solace.