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.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has stalled action on a $3.5 billion annual school funding formula due to state lawmakers by March 15.
The New Orleans Saints have yet to make it official as of this writing, but popular wide receiver Lance Moore has reportedly been cut by the team to free up salary-cap space on the roster.
While two medical marijuana bills are slated for the upcoming legislative session, what some Louisianans might not know is that the plant was approved for therapeutic use by state lawmakers in 1991.
The agenda is shaping up to be lighter than in previous years. But Jindal is term-limited, with fewer than two years remaining in office, and he saw his last big initiative — a proposed rewrite of Louisiana tax law — collapse without getting a vote in 2013.
Sharper has been held without bail because of an arrest warrant issued by Louisiana authorities accusing him and another man of raping two women.
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Friday, March 07, 2014:
Two Lafayette men have been revealed by police as the infamous duo behind a caper that shook our fair city to its core.
The Lafayette Parish School Board has received a second letter of demand related to last year’s insurance debacle, this time from Key Benefit Administrators claiming it’s owed $93,000 from the school system.
The Louisiana coastline is vanishing faster than mappers can keep track.
A bill that would have overridden local ordinances prohibiting public and private employers from discriminating against lesbian, gay and transgender people has been pulled within less than a week of being filed.
The panel that selects nominees for a controversial New Orleans area flood control board — a board that is suing more than 90 oil, gas and pipeline companies — is set to discuss legislation affecting its independence.
State prison officials cannot keep secret the seller and manufacturer of the two drugs purchased for executions at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
State lawmakers will not appeal a judge's ruling that it was improper to use $3.7 million from a probation and parole officers' retirement fund to balance the state's operating budget.
Conservatives have been losing their minds over this satirical bit on the Colbert Report.
The Lafayette Parish School Board leaves a lot to be desired, but is scrapping the election process in favor of an appointed board the answer?
The House approved legislation Tuesday night to roll back a recently enacted overhaul of the federal flood insurance program, after homeowners in flood-prone areas complained about sharp premium increases.
The NFL has formally designated New Orleans' Jimmy Graham as a tight end for the purposes of his franchise tag value, which is now set at $7.05 million next season unless Graham and the Saints subsequently agree on a long-term deal.
A federal appeals panel ruled Monday that businesses don't have to prove that they were directly harmed by BP's 2010 Gulf Of Mexico oil spill to collect settlement payments.
The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development has closed Interstate 10 from I-49 in Lafayette to Seigen Lane in Baton Rouge.
Jim Bernhard, who engineered the sale of The Shaw Group for $3 billion, recently has told several people involved in Democratic politics that he intends to run for governor in 2015.
A New Orleans levee board wants to hold the oil and gas industry accountable for decades of damage to our state’s coastline, but the Legislature may be poised to put the kibosh on the suit.
New standards curb elective induction
CVS stops tobacco sales
If an Acadia Parish fiddler misses a note while swatting a fly, will a St. Martinville accordionist learn “Ma ‘Tite Fille”?
(It's good, it's bad and it's just crazy)