Behind storm come dangers of illness, injury

Water, food can become contaminated

mosquitoes carrying disease multiply

Katrina's Wake

August 31, 2005|By David Kohn | David Kohn,SUN STAFF

Public health experts warned yesterday that people living in areas hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina run the risk of becoming ill from contaminated water supplies and inadequately refrigerated food.

Officials also worry about infectious disease that might spread in packed shelters, West Nile virus transmitted by mosquitoes breeding in standing water, and injuries caused by power tools used to repair damage. Gasoline-powered generators can create dangerous levels of carbon monoxide in confined spaces, they warned.

Toxic substances from industrial plants and pipelines could foul water supplies and the environment at large. Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are scouting the area for possible problems.

Emergency federal and state teams are taking in water and ice, but in the meantime health experts say residents can take precautions.

Purify water

Dr. Thomas Sink, acting director of the Center for Environmental Health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommended boiling contaminated water for at least a minute or adding a little unscented bleach, one-eighth of a teaspoon per gallon. The CDC has sent three people to New Orleans to monitor the situation.

Experts said there was little chance of large-scale outbreaks of diseases such as cholera or malaria, which often occur after natural disasters in developing countries. Microorganisms that cause the most dire ailments do not exist along the Gulf Coast.

"It's not like malaria or the plague are suddenly going to show up in New Orleans," said Dr. Tom Kirsch, director of operations for the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Kirsch, who has worked on disaster relief in Asia and Africa, said that Katrina's victims should be concerned about common bacterial and viral bugs such as E. coli., which can cause diarrhea and other symptoms.

Kirsch said that for those who are already sick, or for infants, diarrheal diseases can be more hazardous.

Mythical risk

On Monday, Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, warned that the situation could be "incredibly dangerous" because of floating animal carcasses. But health experts agree that neither dead animals nor human corpses floating up from flooded cemeteries pose a danger.

"There is no risk whatsoever" from the bodies, said Kirsch. "That idea is a fallacy."

The hazard from chemical contamination is less clear. The Louisiana coast is a center for the petrochemical industry, and some officials have expressed concern that toxic substances from industrial plants and pipelines could foul water supplies and the environment.

Beth Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency, said it was too early to tell whether any contamination had occurred. "We don't have a lot of data right now," she said. Yesterday, EPA researchers were flying above the region, surveying the area.

Kirsch worried about the possibility of such pollution.

"They could have a potentially significant chemical contamination," he said of the area. "That's an issue."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.