Returning Katrina Victims Find Numerous Health Problems Await Them

People who are returning to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina are finding that they may be exposed to life-threatening hazards.  

Citizens have to deal with leaking natural gas lines, the potential of carbon monoxide poisoning, and a number of contaminated materials.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its Federal Partners released a warning urging returning residents to take the following precautions:

·Be aware of possible combustible or explosive gases. Many natural gas and other fuel lines were broken during Hurricane Katrina.  Highly explosive gas vapors may still be present in many buildings.  In addition, methane and other explosive gases may accumulate from decaying materials.

·Open all windows when entering a building. Upon entering a home or building, don’t smoke, light matches, operate electrical switches, use either cell or conventional phones, or create any other source of ignition.  If the smell of gas or the sound of escaping gas is present, exit the building immediately, leaving windows and doors open.  Immediately upon leaving the building, contact emergency authorities and do not re-enter the building until authorities advise that it is safe to do so.

·Avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that is produced when any fuel is burned.  Ingesting high levels of carbon dioxide can cause death.  Never use fuel-burning devices such as gasoline-powered generators, camp stoves and lanterns, or charcoal grills inside homes, garages, or any other confined space.  Opening doors and windows or using fans will not prevent carbon dioxide buildup in the home.  Carbon dioxide poisoning symptoms include feeling sick, dizzy, or weak.  If these symptoms occur, people should get to fresh air immediately.

·Avoid problems from mold, bacteria, and insects. Standing water is a breeding ground for a wide range of micro-organisms and insects, such as mosquitoes.  Mosquitoes can spread diseases like West Nile Virus.  Micro-organisms, including bacteria and mold, can become airborne and be inhaled.  

It is important to remove standing water as quickly as possible.  Remove wet materials and discard those that cannot be thoroughly cleaned and dried within 48 hours.  Virtually all building contents made of paper, cloth, wood and other absorbent materials that have been wet for over 48 hours need to be discarded.

Micro-organisms and other contaminants can penetrate deep into soaked, porous materials and later be released into air or water.  A building that has been immersed in contaminated flood waters will need to be completely dried out.  This may require the removal of ceiling, wall, insulation, flooring and other materials.  If a house or building is not dried out properly, a musty odor, signifying growth of micro-organisms, can remain long after the flood.

It is very important to limit contact with flood water.  When removing materials or furnishings contaminated with mold, it is important to wear goggles, gloves, and a respirator or dust mask.

·Avoid problems from the use of cleaners, disinfectants, and pesticides. Disinfectants, sanitizers, and other pesticides can contain toxic and hazardous substances.  Mixing certain types of household cleaners can produce toxic fumes that can result in injury or even death.  Read and follow all instructions carefully.  When using cleaners and disinfectants, provide fresh air by opening windows and doors.

·Avoid problems from airborne asbestos and lead dust. Elevated concentrations of airborne asbestos can occur if asbestos-containing materials present in many older homes are disturbed.  Buildings constructed before 1970 are more likely to contain asbestos.  Airborne asbestos can cause <"">lung cancer and mesothelioma, a cancer of the chest and abdominal linings.  

Lead is a highly toxic metal which produces a range of adverse health effects, particularly in young children.  Many homes built before 1978 may contain lead-based paint.  Disturbance or removal of materials containing lead-based paint may result in elevated concentrations of lead dust in the air.

If it is known that the house or building contains asbestos or lead-based paint, contact public health authorities before doing any cleanup.

·Avoid problems with contaminated drinking water. A large number of drinking water facilities in Louisiana are either operating on a boil water notice (water must be boiled before it is consumed), or are not operating at all.  Exposure to certain micro-organisms in water can make people sick, and may cause diarrhea.  Exposure can come from drinking contaminated water, cooking with it, making prepared drinks or brushing teeth.  

Residents can find out the status of their water system by checking their utility bill for the name of the water system that provides the water.  A list of parish water systems under a boil advisory can be found at the Louisiana government website.  Vigorous boiling for one minute will kill disease-causing micro-organisms present in water.

If residents get their water from a private well, it is necessary to have an expert check the quality of the water. 

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