Knight-Ridder  [Printer-friendly version]
November 29, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: Across Mississippi and Louisiana, people are
afflicted with coughs, infections, rashes and broken limbs and they
are jittery, tired, depressed and prone to bizarre outbursts, health
professionals say.]

By Seth Borenstein and Chris Adams

BILOXI, Miss. -- Three months after Hurricane Katrina raked the Gulf
Coast, a major health crisis is emerging as residents struggle with
the fouled air, moldy houses and the numbing stress the killer storm
left behind.

Across Mississippi and Louisiana, people are afflicted with coughs,
infections, rashes and broken limbs and they are jittery, tired,
depressed and prone to bizarre outbursts, health professionals said.

Burning storm debris, increased diesel exhaust, runaway mold and fumes
from glue and plywood in new trailers are irritating people's lungs
and nasal passages. Weary residents trying to clean up and repair
their homes are falling off roofs and cutting themselves with
chainsaws. And stress is fracturing the psyches of countless storm

"It's a cumulative effect here," said Claire Gilbert, a New Orleans
surgical technician who works in a Louisiana occupational medical
practice and volunteered at the New Waveland Clinic, a tent shelter
complex that just closed in Mississippi. "You get a little cough. You
get a nose that runs. You get eye irritation. Then you get falls. And
you've got the stress. It's not just little things. It's how they all
add up."

Consider Colin Landis of Biloxi. First, he lost his rented home when
it filled with six feet of water as part of Katrina's storm surge.
Then, his marriage of 16 years, already under stress, collapsed. His
wife fled the coast with their three children. He felt alone and
strained with only $3,500 in federal help.

Landis ended up living in a borrowed RV on a friend's yard less than a
mile from a burning pile of storm debris. With the RV's air
conditioner broken, Landis slept with the window open. He'd wake up
with a raw throat and irritated eyes.

"It was almost like I had strep throat," Landis said. "It was
obviously due to the environment."

Landis, who isn't sleeping much anymore, said that stress is getting
to him more now than it did in the first few hectic weeks after
Katrina struck. And it's not just him who's under strain. His brother-
in-law just hurt his back falling through a storm-damaged deck.

When Katrina bore down on Mississippi and Louisiana, health officials
worried about a toxic gumbo of industrial chemicals that might flood
the area and about the spread of infectious diseases. Instead, a more
subtle health problem developed, said Dr. Howard Frumkin, director of
the National Center for Environmental Health, a division of the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

"In many ways, this is the major environmental health disaster of our
lifetime," Frumkin told Knight Ridder Newspapers. "It's a very
complicated set of risk factors people face.... This is a huge set of
environmental health challenges."

Frumkin listed several irritants and carcinogens emitted from burning
Katrina's flotsam and from traffic emissions, including acrolein and
formaldehyde. Those two chemicals trigger coughs and bad congestion in
the short term and are linked to cancer after prolonged exposure.
Recent measurements from Mississippi air monitors show that spikes in
the chemicals are much higher than what federal standards allow. In
October, acrolein levels measured 155 times higher than federal
standards and formaldehyde levels were seven times higher than

Frumkin also mentioned such emissions as polycyclic aromatic
hydrocarbons, which cause cancer, and deadly carbon monoxide. Mold is
nearly everywhere, and cleanup-related injuries are often overlooked,
he said.

But what hurts the Gulf Coast most -- and compounds the effects of
everything else -- is stress, experts said.

"Stress isn't a strong enough word. I'd call it anguish," Frumkin
said. "The level of grief and anguish there is palpable."

People can't sleep. They don't remember meetings or what day it is.
Vietnam veterans suffer flashbacks and nightmares, psychologists say.

William Gasparrini, a Biloxi clinical psychologist, calls it "Post-
Katrina Stress Disorder," in which residents suffer bouts of grief,
shock, rapid mood shifts, confusion, anger, marital discord, guilt,
escape fantasies and substance abuse.

"The effects are lasting longer than I suspected," Gasparrini said. "I
thought everything would be back to normal in three to four weeks.
Now, three months later, it looks like it'll be one to two years -- if
we are lucky. There are a lot of people in pain -- a lot of people who
cry every day."

Making matters worse is that the devastation is so widespread that
people can't escape it. Unlike a tornado or the terrorist attacks on
the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the area of destruction in
Mississippi and Louisiana is so wide that residents need to drive for
miles to find a sense of normalcy.

"When you drive around Biloxi and see all those houses that have been
very badly damaged and see people living in the rubble for weeks and
weeks, it's easy to understand how traumatizing this has been for
these families," said Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center
for Disaster Preparedness at the Columbia University Mailman School of
Public Health. Redlener has spent time since the storm in New Orleans
and Mississippi.

"Because of the prolonged nature of this disaster, it's impossible to
guess what rate of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) we will see.
It may be much higher than we would normally expect."

After other disasters, between 7 percent and 12 percent of the people
directly affected eventually suffered PTSD symptoms, he said. Because
Katrina victims number in the hundreds of thousands -- all the people
who lost homes, lost relatives or were forced into temporary shelters
- the mental toll could be huge, he said.

"Because the sheer size of the impact was so large, I think there is a
greater sense of despair and loss that people are experiencing," he
said. "This experience of dramatic, prolonged displacement will create
a toll long into the future."

Before Katrina hit, a Mississippi mental health telephone help line
received about 300 calls a month. After Katrina, the help line was
flooded with calls: One night, director Jennie Hillman had the line
roll over to her home; she was up much of the night fielding 27 calls.

In late September, federal money helped pay for a new mental health
help line called Project Recovery. It also has been swamped with
calls: In the last four weeks, Project Recovery has received 960
calls, while workers in the field have made contact with an additional
800 people, Hillman said.

The Gulf Coast Mental Health Center lost nearly half its patients
during and just after the storm, yet new patients streamed in to
replace them and then some, said psychologist Steve Barrilleaux,
director of the adult outpatient program. Now nearly half of those the
center sees have Katrina-related problems.

Diane Lufreniere, a therapist at the center, developed strange rashes
on both arms.

"I was itching all the time and I just couldn't figure it out," she
said. She went to three doctors, and they tried different medicines to
no avail. Finally, they figured it was the stress of housing friends
who were homeless. When the stress went away, so did the rashes.

While the stress is overwhelming, the part of the body that shows the
most symptoms is the respiratory system, said directors of local
medical centers and makeshift clinics.

In just nine days, from Nov. 9 to Nov. 17, the New Waveland Clinic saw
473 patients -- 121 of them were for respiratory problems. The second
most common symptom was skin problems with 68 patients.

Dave Farragut of DeLisle, Miss., got one of the first new trailers
from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The first couple of
days, the smell from the trailer made his eyes burn. When his
girlfriend moved in a few days later, she also got sick at first.

For more than a decade, federal health officials have known about
irritating chemicals emitted from the glue and plywood of new
trailers, said professor Stan Glantz, of the University of California
at San Francisco.

Volunteer Claire Gilbert at the Waveland clinic had mold problems of
her own in her New Orleans apartment. Nearly every structure touched
by the floodwaters has mold growing.

Mold is serious. In addition to irritating people and triggering
asthma and allergy attacks, it can cause infections and can be toxic
and cause cancer, said Sam Arbes, a scientist who specializes in mold
issues at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in
North Carolina.

"It doesn't get any worse" than the mold levels Arbes said he saw in
New Orleans. Testing there by the Natural Resources Defense Council,
an environmental group, found mold levels in New Orleans nearly 13
times higher than what's considered very high levels by allergists.

Increased traffic is also creating breathing problems for vulnerable
people, Frumkin said. And diesel exhaust -- increased because of ever-
present construction and debris-clearing vehicles with diesel engines
- causes cancer, he said.

With bridges and roads out, traffic in parts of the Mississippi Gulf
Coast is down to a crawl, so it can take two to three times longer
than usual to get places, increasing emissions.

For example, on Interstate 10, just west of U.S. 49 in Gulfport, the
average daily traffic has increased from about 37,000 last year to
52,000 last month, according to Trung Trinh, a planner for the
Mississippi Department of Transportation.

Skin problems are also plentiful. New Waveland Clinic director Brad
Stone told of a disabled woman who lived in her car for three months
while waiting for FEMA to come up with a handicapped accessible
trailer. The woman developed a fungal infection on her body that was
"extremely painful and dehumanizing," Stone said.

It all comes down to environmental factors, Stone said.

Take Alicia Heatherton of Biloxi. During Katrina she stayed in her
retirement home apartment right on the beach. Even though nearby
buildings were obliterated, she survived.

It's the aftermath that's come close to killing her.

Heatherton, a 68-year-old woman with emphysema, got a severe lung
infection from the mold spreading in her apartment.

"I love it (in Biloxi), but my life comes first," Heatherton said,
gasping for air. In about a week, she's moving to Nevada, saying: "I'm
not going to sit here and mold to death."

Copyright 2005 KR Washington Bureau