The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Unaddressed Health Hazards Persist as New Orleans Slowly Rebuilds

by Michelle Chen

Health advocates continue to raise alarms in response to troubling environmental test results, saying that instead of enforcing vital workplace safety regulations, the government has tied its own hands.

Dec. 5, 2005 – More than three months into the post-hurricane recovery effort in Louisiana, environmental health advocates say the government still can’t get it right. By downplaying environmental threats and failing to provide protective equipment, they say, government authorities are risking public health.

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In the wake of the Gulf Coast hurricanes, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) have distributed informational materials and issued public service announcements to returning residents and workers, encouraging people to beware of contaminants in indoor and outdoor environments, including mold spores, industrial spills and chemically hazardous wreckage.

But watchdog groups fear the message is reaching too few.

Anne Rolfes, executive director of the environmental group Louisiana Bucket Brigade and New Orleans resident, said that she is aware of little public outreach aside from "fact sheets that I saw wadded up in the corner of a Walgreens."

She continued, "I don’t believe that they really want to communicate with the public.… I have people calling me all day, saying ‘What should we do?’" The Brigade, which has long monitored industrial pollution in the state, argues that people should be able to see the latest air monitoring results on the nightly news instead of having to download charts from a government website. "There’s no reason it shouldn’t be in the paper every day," she said.

Government public outreach efforts have issued cautionary statements alongside reassuring announcements about the progress in cleanup and recovery.

The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), a worker-safety advocacy group, recently blasted the EPA and OSHA’s response to health issues facing workers in the Gulf region, who are uniquely vulnerable to dangerous debris and pollution surrounding the massive reconstruction efforts.

The organization has focused on the federal government’s statements concerning asbestos, a carcinogenic substance that has been banned for certain uses but is still present in various building materials. Official post-hurricane advisories state that asbestos was used in the past, without providing a listing of which asbestos-containing materials have been banned and when. NYCOSH warned that accurately gauging their risk of exposure is extremely difficult without more detailed information.

NYCOSH spokesperson Jonathan Bennett predicted that, misled by vague advisories, "people are almost certainly going to do repair and demolition on [hazardous] things that they do not believe could have asbestos in them."

Throughout the recovery process, the EPA and DEQ’s public outreach efforts have issued cautionary statements alongside reassuring announcements about the progress in cleanup and recovery, despite indicators of persistently elevated pollution levels in the environment.

Environmental health advocates argue that to protect public health, the government must go beyond just telling people to be careful.

EPA spokesperson Lisa Fasano said that while the agency is distributing informational materials through community centers, its main preoccupation is "helping the state address immediate threats and hazards," through projects like the collection of over a million discarded chemical containers and hazardous household waste items.

"The EPA doesn’t monitor indoor air quality," she added, so for mold and other contaminants pervading damaged homes, "the state… is taking the lead on getting information to the public."

The state’s position is that the environmental threats are noteworthy, but not dire. "There’s nothing that I’m seeing now where the alarm bells are going off," said DEQ spokesperson Darin Mann. "You see slightly elevated levels."

But environmentalists say government measures have glossed over long-term health risks. Last week, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and other groups publicized their own analyses of the environmental situation, aimed at explaining what the scientific findings mean for local communities.

The NRDC released independent soil-testing data from several parishes, conducted in October and September in collaboration with local environmental groups and chemist Wilma Subra. The group reported that the discovery of contamination from banned pesticides, arsenic, and other industrial toxins – findings similar to the government’s own data – warrants further testing and more urgent safety warnings.

The Bucket Brigade’s audit of government air-sampling results challenged the official safety assurances. EPA testing revealed concentrations of the carcinogenic petrochemical benzene at up to 46 times the DEQ’s air-quality standard. About one-third of the limited air monitoring samples taken in September showed significantly elevated levels of particle pollution.

In addition to criticizing the lack of accessible information, environmental health advocates argue that to protect public health, the government must go beyond just telling people to be careful.

The NRDC called for the immediate remediation of topsoil in severely contaminated areas. The Brigade recommended that the government conduct health inspections of private property. "Without decisive action by the regulatory agencies," the group stated, "there is no reason to believe that the benzene or particulate contamination will stop."

NYCOSH has complained that federal authorities are failing to enforce mandatory precautions to protect workers, such as worksite safety assessments and protective equipment to control asbestos exposures.

Enforcement of workplace safety regulations normally falls under OSHA, but in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, the government’s National Response Plan relegates the agency to "technical assistance mode." In this capacity, OSHA cannot issue citations or formally investigate misconduct except in response to a workplace catastrophe or a direct complaint. About 100 OSHA officers are now deployed in the hurricane-impacted areas, charged primarily with guiding employers, as opposed to formally holding them accountable.

The agency reports that it has undertaken roughly 11,000 "interventions," in which officers observed a safety problem and provided advice on how to correct it.

OSHA spokesperson Al Belsky noted that in the recovery effort, inadequate safety equipment "is one of the big problems," and that the agency’s printed fact sheets and radio announcements might not reach everyone, particularly Spanish-speaking immigrant workers, some of who reportedly cannot read the distributed information.

Though government agencies have recommended the use of respirator masks to guard against airborne mold and other contaminants, critics point out that agencies have made no large-scale effort to supply workers or residents with respiratory protection. Meanwhile, local environmentalists report that the use of protective gear is spotty at best, possibly because people do not perceive such equipment as necessary, or because it is not available in the area.

"The basic responsibility to ensure that the worker has the correct personal protective equipment rests with the employer," said Belsky. He said he believed OSHA lacks the authority to directly supply workers with gear.

Bennett of NYCOSH responded, "This notion that there is no federal government agency that can possibly figure out a way to authorize the purchase and distribution of respirators and [train] people to use them… It’s unbelievable. You know, if they wanted to do it, they could figure out a way to do it."

DEQ’s Mann acknowledged that while visiting New Orleans, he spotted some people not wearing appropriate protective equipment. Yet he remarked: "I don’t have control over that…. And the thing about it is, it’s personal responsibility."

Advocacy groups counter that on the issue of responsibility, the government is failing to meet the public halfway.

"We’re doing all we can do," said Rolfes, referring to the Bucket Brigade’s grassroots public-education campaign. But as the group picks up where government authorities have left off, she said, "what we’ve been pointing out is that it’s the environmental agencies, who are taking our tax dollars, who have been charged with that responsibility. And right now what we’re seeing is gross dereliction of duties."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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