Health risks for Hurricane Katrina first responders under debate
Richard A. Webster
New Orleans CityBusiness (New Orleans, LA)
Copyright 2006 Dolan Media Newswires
The lungs of rescue workers who spent days in the wreckage of the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks aged 12 years in just one year's time, a recent medical report found. Government officials in Louisiana said there should be no long-term health risks for Hurricane Katrina first responders, but some environmental experts are not as confident. They say without any reliable system in place to track their health, the long-term impact may never be known.
"Part of the problem is there wasn't any type of tracking system to check who went in, when they went in, how long they were in and where they are at now," said Darryl Malek-Wiley, the New Orleans representative for the Sierra Club. "And it's real hard if there's not that type of registry to know if you're sick four years later that it happened because you were in the floodwaters of New Orleans. It was just chaos to say the least. " The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine conducted a study of 12,000 New York firefighters and found that in the four years before Sept. 11, 2001, the lung volume of rescue workers dropped an average of 31 milliliters a year. Lung volume measurements determine how much a person can inhale.
In the year following the terrorist attacks, rescuers lost an average of 372 milliliters, the equivalent of 12 years of aging. Tom Harris, a toxicologist with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, said in the immediate aftermath of the storm the DEQ assessed environmental and health risks to rescue workers. "There's absolutely no way at all they will suffer any long term effects," Harris said. "The rescue workers were here for such a short period of time and it would have to be some pretty nasty stuff to be a health risk. We're at a level where it's safe for children to play every day for the next 30 years. " Louisiana state epidemiologist Dr. Raoult Ratard said the ground conditions after the terrorist attacks were vastly different than those experienced by rescue workers during Katrina.
"In 9/11 you had explosions and fires and you got a lot of dust, products of the combustion of plastic and metal fumes, all kinds of things that will be extremely toxic," Ratard said. "In Katrina what you had was sewer water and that was not very nice but you don't get anything extraordinary from it. "There are risks from exposure to mold but if you take precautions you should have little problems. If you don't it will cause respiratory irritation but not anything linked to long term chronic pulmonary disease."
Others, however, believe significant health risks exist. Wilma Subra, president of the Subra Co., a New Iberia environmental consulting firm, said while it's not a certainty, possible long-term health impacts to Katrina rescue workers could include spontaneous miscarriages, infertility, fetal malformation and an increased risk of cancer and chronic lung disease. Exposure to toxic heavy metals, petroleum materials and bacteria are the leading risk factors, she said. Malek-Wiley said it is possible no one will ever really know the long-term health impacts of Katrina on rescue workers.