Health Dangers Ease in The Big Easy

Mold remains the leading threat to those returning to New Orleans, experts say

FRIDAY, Nov. 4, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- While Hurricane Katrina took a heavy toll on New Orleans, the city is making steady progress returning to normal, even while some health dangers remain.

Experts say the major health problems are mold, hazardous waste and injuries suffered during the cleanup.

"There is continued sampling going on of drinking water, surface water and soil sampling," said Dr. Maureen Lichtveld, chairwoman of environmental health sciences at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. "For all of those, there are no indications of public health dangers," she added.

The so-called toxic soup of contaminated water and sewage wasn't as hazardous as feared, Lichtveld said. "The drinking water is virtually all on line, the sewer system is being repaired."

In addition, seafood and fish have been sampled in Lake Pontchartrain and other areas and found safe, Lichtveld said. "That is the good news," she said. "We need to continue to monitor on a long-term basis."

According to Lichtveld, mold remains the one major area of concern. "The advice from the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention is that if you go home, you need to use gloves and masks if you are going to remove the mold," she said.

Lichtveld warned that people with health conditions such as asthma or compromised immune systems should stay away from mold and not attempt to get rid of it themselves.

The Los Angeles Times reported Friday that New Orleans doctors are seeing a rise in what locals are calling "Katrina cough," believed to be caused by allergies to the mold and dust resulting from the storm.

"It started out as a sore throat and scratchy eyes. That turned into a cough again, and that's where it's stayed," affected resident Christophe Hinton, 38, told the newspaper. Dr. Kevin Jordan, director of medical affairs at New Orlean's Touro Infirmary and Memorial Medical Center, told the Times the center had seen a 25 percent rise in such cases since Katrina.

"The mold problem is a very large one in terms of the number of structures that have had flooding and are probably going to have mold damage as a consequence," said Dr. Stephen Redd, chief of the air pollution and respiratory branch at the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health.

The CDC has advised people working in homes infested with mold to wear gloves and face masks, added CDC spokeswomen Bernadette Burden. "People need to protect themselves," she said. "If a person has any type of sensitivity or a compromised immune system, or any type of allergy or preexisting respiratory condition, there is a likelihood of having a sensitivity to mold."

Even though the magnitude of the mold infestation is greater than seen before, local experts say that dealing with the problem is not new, Burden said. "They have worked alongside CDC experts for years and are capable of dealing with the situation," she said.

If a home wasn't flooded, it's unlikely there would be a significant mold problem, Lichtveld said. But, if a house was flooded, residents will have to remove all the mold before the house is safe to live in. This means stripping carpet, sheet rock and insulation. If the job is extensive, Lichtveld recommended working with people experienced in removing mold.

Burden said local experts are making house-by-house assessments to determine the extent of mold infestation and whether a home can be saved.

The CDC has guidelines for when individuals can live in a home with mold without having to "wear respiratory protection on an ongoing basis," Redd said. "A lot of it boils down to what the level of mold in the house is and whether you can be in the house while remediation is being done," he added.

Lichtveld also cautioned that discarded material needs to be disposed of properly to avoid exposure to hazardous waste. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that about one million pounds of household hazardous waste has been collected in Louisiana as of the end of October.

This waste consists largely of cleaning products, lawn and garden products, pesticides and herbicides, fuels and paints, as well as car batteries.

Redd cautioned that the burning of debris can also cause air pollution problems. "There are discussions going on that are aimed at reducing the volume of debris and at the same time being protective of human health by minimizing exposure to particulate matter from smoke from burning debris," he said.

On a brighter note, Lichtveld said more hospitals are reopening. "The hospitals and clinics are coming on line," she said. In addition, the city has been inspecting restaurants and declaring them safe to eat in, she said. "There are pink signs in the windows of all the restaurants, she said. "You can feel comfortable going in and eating."

As for the long-term outlook, Lichtveld sees the rebuilding of New Orleans as a chance to make important infrastructure changes. "There are a number of wonderful opportunities for the city as it rebuilds to do things right," she said.

More information

For more on post-hurricane health dangers, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Maureen Lichtveld, M.D., chair, environmental health sciences, Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, New Orleans; Bernadette Burden, spokeswoman, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Stephen Redd, M.D., chief, air pollution and respiratory branch, CDC National Center for Environmental Health, Atlanta; Nov. 4, 2005, Los Angeles Times
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