I wrote this brief paper for extra credit in my Environmental Health Science class. Dr. Mark Johnson, a senior environmental health scientist for ATSDR came to my class to lecture on his work in post Katrina New Orleans. EHS is not really my favorite class (too much math), but because everything in public health is connected, toxic spillage and carcinogens in substances have an angle that interest me.
EPA Katrina and the Dilemma with Risk
Dr. Mark Johnson’s public health work is in an area that has been all but forgotten. When hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 the immediate concerns of hunger, thirst, and lodging were on the forefront, and all over the news. The government’s and FEMA’s failures also made headlines for some months after the big storm. Now, years after the disaster, multiple concern and problems remain in the area that prevent New Orleans and other areas from recuperating fully, but the news barely covers these topics at all.
Some of the immediate public health concerns in Louisiana were lack of proper or even basic sanitation, safe drinking water, shelter conditions, concerns about infectious diseases and medical services (Johnson, lecture April 8 2009). The need for rapid response caused insufficient and improper response, with thousands of people lodging in a sports stadium without clean water, bathrooms, food and medical attention. Shortly after, other health concerns like the cleaning of debris, concerns with air quality, insects, mold, biohazards from decaying food, ad contaminated sediments became the major public health concern (Johnson, 2009). Now, almost five years after the storm, major public health concerns still remain.
The Murphy Oil spill was only one of many oil spills that occurred because of Katrina and the subsequent breaking of the levees. It is considered to be the most severe. The Murphy Oil Spill released 1,000,000 gallons of crude oil (Johnson 2009) in Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parish. The soil samples around the spill site analyzed by the EPA contained levels of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, Arsenic, and various other diesel and oil range organic chemicals (EPA). The EPAs suggestion is for residents who are planning to move back into Plaquemines and St. Bernard parish to avoid direct contact with the oil because of skin irritation. They also encourage residents to make sure to air out their homes and ventilate properly because of the fumes.
While the EPA standards are scientifically sounds, I can’t imagine living in an area full of black, sticky, oil to be pleasant. Because policy is often driven by stakeholders like the EPA, the results of the EPA analysis could be detrimental for continuous clean up in the area. If the problem the oil spill causes is considered to be minor (causing skin irritations only) residents might have a hard time living in their homes, surrounded by sludge and oil, even though it won’t cause severe health defects. The oil, though disgusting and unhealthy, becomes less of a priority if it does not pose an immediate threat or health concern. That is one of the problems with proper risk communication. Perhaps if the news would pick up the story again, with pictures of the oil spill that still concern the area, residents wouldn’t have to continue living as they do now.
Organizations like the EPA then are a blessing and a curse. Their scientific results of the toxicity of the oil are relieving because they do not pose enough of a threat so far to cause lasting health defects. Because, however, the EPA did not consider it enough of a threat, it might be years before the area will be back to normal again. Also, the cancer risk over lifetime ranged from 1 in 1,000,000 to 1 in 10,000. While the first would be acceptable to me, the latter is certainly not. Somehow, however, because it was only in very few samples that the cancer risk over lifetime was so high, it did not seem like a concern for the EPA. The after math of Katrina is certainly not over, not from a humanitarian perspective, not from a communications perspective, and certainly not from a public health perspective.