Health Crisis Lurks in Tainted Floodwaters

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The flooding in New Orleans is likely to lead to a massive health crisis in the coming days, apart from the initial deaths caused by storm emergencies. Oil and chemical contamination of the floodwater, plus rotting vegetation and bodies, could lead to water-borne illness on a huge scale.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

More now on Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath. Joanne Silberner is with us, NPR's science reporter.

Joanne, what are the immediate health concerns about the storm now?

JOANNE SILBERNER reporting:

Well, they've already been deaths from people being exposed to carbon monoxide. That comes out of generators, if you run a generator in an area that's not ventilated. Those are completely preventable deaths.

There are the issues--you know, broken bones from people battered about by these floodwaters, there have been some electrocutions from people coming too near downed power wires. So there are the immediate emergency issues that come up in a storm like this.

CHADWICK: There are reports of dead bodies floating in the water in New Orleans and people not really able to do anything about that at the moment, New Orleans and elsewhere. What kind of a hazard is it to have dead bodies lying around?

SILBERNER: It's mostly an emotional hazard. I mean, this comes up in disasters everywhere. With earthquakes and volcanoes, you get a lot of dead bodies; there's a rush to get them into the ground. But actually, public healthwise, they generally don't spread disease. First of all, they're not really moving anywhere. Second of all, if they don't carry a disease in the first place--if the person didn't have cholera, didn't have typhoid--there's really no hazard from them. The hazard really is emotional.

CHADWICK: Is there any danger of typhoid or cholera breaking out?

SILBERNER: Theoretically, yes, but in reality, probably not much. Again, it's not there. So it has to be there in order to spread. These are bacterial diseases, and if the bacteria aren't there in the beginning, they're not going to spread.

CHADWICK: This is hot and humid. It's the South. It's the end of August, a difficult time. What about that?

SILBERNER: Definite problems there. First of all, people who don't have electricity being exposed to high heat and humidity in a very stressful time. Mosquitoes are--you've got a lot of standing water around; this is where they breed. There's concern about West Nile, any other mosquito-borne disease. Also, snakes. You know, snakes go around in the water. So for the rescuers, they're going to be dealing with that, as well.

CHADWICK: What about people with chronic conditions, diabetes, say?

SILBERNER: That's a real problem. The issue there is that if they're on insulin that's refrigerated, they've lost their power, they've lost their insulin. It's hard to find any fresh supplies. The drugstores are closed; transportation is down. This was definitely seen in other hurricanes--Hurricane Andrew, for example--people going into, you know, an insulin coma. They go into shock, they don't have their insulin and there's nowhere for them to get it and there's no hospital for them to go to.

And, in fact, with other disease, as well--again, with Andrew, they had cases of, you know, kids who spiked a higher fever and needed immediate medical care and couldn't get it. And also, people on portable oxygen, you know, any of these chronic diseases where you have supplies that need replenishing. There was already a death from a men with lung cancer. He was on oxygen, but it ran out. You know, if you've got a one-week supply or a three-day supply, it's going to run out, there's nowhere to get fresh supplies.

CHADWICK: Joanne Silberner covers health issues for NPR. Joanne, thank you.

SILBERNER: Thank you, Alex.

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