The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Relief Workers May Be Next Wave of Katrina Victims

by Michelle Chen

Reminiscent of the 9/11 recovery workers in Manhattan, first responders and relief personnel operating in the toxic gumbo New Orleans has become are toiling largely unprotected, treated as dispensable by the federal government.

Sept. 23, 2005 – Though evacuation orders have been in place since Hurricane Katrina shredded New Orleans weeks ago, the city has never been empty. As water poured over its walls, many first responders, military and medical personnel, and other public servants stood their ground, and still more flowed in from other areas, placing themselves in harm’s way to help others.

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But as the floodwaters recede and the city looks toward recovery, environmental groups are warning that numerous hazards still residing on New Orleans’ sodden ground could cause short- and long-term health problems. And they say the government’s efforts to protect recovery workers threaten to be as incompetent as its initial response.

The post-Katrina New Orleans, where thousands of recovery workers and emergency responders are now toiling, has been described as a cesspool of toxic chemicals, human waste, decomposing flesh and surprises yet to be discovered in the sediment that still blankets much of the city.

"We haven’t even done a damage assessment, let alone an environmental assessment," said Hugh Kaufman, senior policy analyst with the Environmental Protection Agency’s solid waste division.

Kaufman said that if federal, state and local governments had followed the Department of Homeland Security’s National Response Plan, agencies would have coordinated seamlessly to ensure public health and safety. "Obviously, that didn’t happen in terms of getting people out," he said, "and it’s not happening right now in terms of protecting the heroes."

For those doing the drying and the moving, the massive recovery process is proceeding with less deliberation, as public and contracted workers mobilize to rebuild the beleaguered city from its muddy ruins.

According to EPA tests, the biological threats from the flood include elevated levels of E. coli bacteria and toxic mold. Contamination from industrial facilities pose a more troubling long-term concern, with more than 40 oil spills reported in Louisiana by the Coast Guard last week and thousands of chemical containers spotted bobbing in the region’s floodwaters. The oozing sediment that coats flood-impacted areas may yield an even greater danger in the coming months as the ground dries, releasing airborne contaminants like harmful organic gases and fuel vapors. The potential health effects range from allergic reactions to organ damage.

The EPA cautions that the findings are still preliminary. Mike Farland, the EPA’s deputy assistant administrator for science, suggested at a press briefing last week that it was too early to draw conclusions about health risks. He said the Agency would "be looking at the question of the longer-term safety issues that may come as these materials are dried and moved and so on."

But for those doing the drying and the moving, the massive recovery process is proceeding with less deliberation, as public and contracted workers mobilize in force to rebuild the beleaguered city from its muddy ruins.

Media images reflect wide variance in the health safeguards offered to workers. News photos show some workers wearing full protective suits and gas masks. But the Washington Post this month ran a series of photos of contracted cleanup crews, sweeping streets or mopping up oil spills, wearing just dust masks and ordinary work clothes.

But activists fear that authorities are keeping workers ill-informed about and unprotected from the risks, with possibly disastrous health consequences.

A spokesperson for the National Guard in New Orleans told The NewStandard that in their rescue and recovery operations, the primary safety precautions taken were protections against infectious disease, such as bottled hand sanitizers, but that commanders had for the most part not issued protective suits or respirators.

P.J. Spaul, a public affairs officer with the New Orleans US Army Corps of Engineers, said that for now, engineers are generally not required to wear special respiratory or anti-toxic gear, since they are mainly engaged in civil works projects "in areas that are safe to be in" and are "not coming in direct contact" with chemical hazards.

Both units reported that commanders had determined, based on briefings from health and environmental authorities, that their operations and work sites did not involve widespread chemical or respiratory hazards.

But activists fear that federal, state and local authorities are keeping workers ill-informed about and unprotected from the risks, with possibly disastrous health consequences. Environmentalists with the Sierra Club and other organizations believe the storm’s damage is so total that the highest degree of precaution should be exercised for all workers.

Under the National Response Plan, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is charged with coordinating protections for disaster recovery workers. The agency’s main role is providing employers and commanders with safety advice based on the best data available. Individual employers and agencies are responsible for the actual purchase and distribution of protective equipment and other necessary safety precautions.

OSHA’s formal "activation" by the Federal Emergency Management Agency came fully two weeks after the storm’s passage, trailing even the lagging mobilizations of its partner agencies, even though OSHA officials first offered assistance on August 31.

As of September 22, OSHA has deployed sixteen staffers to New Orleans to help inspect for hazards, distribute educational materials and brief work teams on safety.

"OSHA’s in a technical assistance mode right now," said agency spokesperson Al Belsky. Under the National Response Plan, OSHA essentially has no enforcement authority unless there is a formal complaint filed or a fatality or catastrophic injury in the field.

Working alongside OSHA, the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences is now coordinating on-site worker safety training programs. However, Bruce Lippy, an industrial hygienist and director of the National Clearinghouse for Worker Safety and Health Training, expressed doubts over the agency’s effectiveness. "We put out a lot of information," he said, "but the question is, who’s getting it, who’s actually acting on it?"

There are currently no uniform regulations for Katrina responders, since OSHA standards are specific to individual work situations and incidents. OSHA’s general guidelines require that the appropriate type of respiratory protection be determined by "experienced safety personnel or by an industrial hygienist." Though OSHA has disseminated reference cards and fact sheets on specific hazards workers may encounter, like asbestos or heavy debris, they are recommendations, not orders.

Even in public warnings about immediate chemical and bacterial hazards, federal authorities have provided considerable leeway for recovery workers and contractors to comply. In joint statements with federal health agencies, the EPA has recommended that "the general public and responders should limit exposure to floodwater" and should avoid contact with sediments "if possible." Yet the Agency also stated earlier this month that people exposed to flooding who lack "access to clean water, vaccinations, doctors, or disinfecting soap" should just do their best to protect themselves under the "extraordinary circumstances."

The watchdog groups OMB Watch and National Environmental Trust have questioned the reliability of the EPA’s environmental sampling data – information that would factor heavily in worker safety determinations.

The released records show that the vast majority of water contaminants tested for have been detected at non-dangerous levels or not at all. However, environmental advocates suspect that the real damage is much deeper, noting that the 2003 EPA Toxic Release Inventory registers thousands of pounds of chemical waste churned out by local facilities. Meanwhile, a treated federal toxic site, the Agriculture Street Landfill, is currently stewed in floodwaters.

The environmental community is demanding that the government go beyond dispensing advice and mandate more public health research on Katrina’s environmental impacts and stronger protections for workers serving in the recovery effort.

Darryl Malek-Wiley, a New Orleans evacuee and Louisiana field organizer for the Sierra Club, said that the government should establish an organized system to track the long-term health effects on exposed New Orleans recovery workers. However, he said, considering that the government has haphazardly fanned refugees across the country, "If that’s the level of record keeping they have for workers, it’s going to be a disaster in the future."

The Sierra Club has warned that the response in New Orleans mirrors the federal government’s failures to protect worker health after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which resulted in hundreds of responders claiming debilitating illnesses due to exposure to pollutants at the World Trade Center site.

At Ground Zero in downtown Manhattan, OSHA’s presence was similarly relegated to an advisory role, and many workers labored for weeks amid acrid, toxic-laden dust without appropriate respiratory gear or organized safety trainings.

Suzanne Mattei, New York City executive of the Sierra Club, said that when federal authorities react to national emergencies, "If there’s a financial reason or a political reason not to protect people, they won’t protect them."

In times of disaster, she said, "They think they can just use up rescue workers like so much tissue paper."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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