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.
OK, so they’re bentgrass, the type used on golf course greens. But grass is grass.
The Senate Finance Committee approved the bill Wednesday, despite opponents who argued it would shut down the storefront lenders.
A measure to allow the state to implement its own, less stringent plan for limiting carbon dioxide emissions unanimously passed the Senate.
FDA to regulate e-cigarettes, Jodie Foster gets married, Vermont to require labels on genetically-modified food, and more news for today, April 24, 2014.
Thursday's Blogs from the Bog!
A push to expand Louisiana's Medicaid program as allowed under the federal health care has been overwhelmingly rejected by the Senate health committee.
Louisiana welfare recipients would be prohibited in state law from spending the federal assistance at lingerie shops, tattoo parlors, nail salons and jewelry stores, under a bill that received the support Wednesday of a House committee.
Senators will consider whether to prohibit private businesses in Louisiana from paying unequal wages to employees of different genders for the same job.
Rep. Joel Robideaux has delayed bill hearings and said unless a compromise can be reached, he won't bring up the legislation this session.
Once again, Lafayette Parish School Board President Hunter Beasley is focused on an issue that has nothing to do with the educational well-being of our public school children.
After exhausting his appeals all the way to the state Supreme Court, the owner of the Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete has no legal remedy left save one: do an end run around the high court via a bill that would grandfather his “right” to keep a 550-pound tiger enclosed in a pin at his roadside business.
Louisiana poet Darrell Bourque has won the 2014 Louisiana Writer Award, given annually to recognize outstanding contributions to Louisiana's literary and intellectual life.
Drivers would have to secure dogs riding in truck beds while on interstate highways, if the Senate agrees to a bill backed by the House.
An effort to prohibit employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity was shelved Tuesday for the legislative session.
Louisiana won't lessen its penalties for marijuana possession, keeping laws on the books that allow people to be jailed up to 20 years for repeat offenses of having the drug in hand.
“This is one of the oldest divides that exists, and that divide is about the haves and the have-nots.”
It took a few weeks for the pitfalls to emerge in the governor’s $25 billion budget, but the time of judgment has finally arrived.
With pressure continuing to build for him to resign, Congressman Vance McAllister announced plans recently to remain secluded during the Easter break, but the Swartz Republican has said he’ll be back on the Hill casting votes and attending committee meetings when the congressional recess ends April 28.
A bid to limit the use of unmanned aircraft on private property in Louisiana stalled Monday in the Louisiana Senate.
A Shreveport lawmaker said Monday he's scrapping his proposal to name the Bible as Louisiana's official state book.
Attorney hopes fellow lawyers will join him in urging the D.A. to step aside and allow a competent, ethical challenger to take over the scandal-ridden office.
An official with the Louisiana Department of Education was arrested on a range of charges Friday after allegedly breaking into a home and brandishing a knife.
State Rep. Stuart Bishop says he’s concerned with the quality of Capitol Lake, but when it comes to Louisiana’s coastline, this Lafayette Republican doesn't seem to give a damn.
Democrats sweating this year's elections may be hoping that the Obama administration's latest delay to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline takes a politically fraught issue off the table for the midterms.
Louisiana lawmakers are entering the second half of their three-month regular legislative session, which must end by June 2. Where some of the major issues stand: