Aftermath of the Storm

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast with such devastating force that the levees were no match for the powerful storm surge. As they gave way, over eighty percent of New Orleans was left under water. The flood waters quickly became toxic, as contamination from garbage, sewage, chemicals and other materials swept in to create a stagnant cesspool that covered the area for many weeks.

Immediate Concerns

The immediate concern, therefore, was to warn people not to wade in the water and to have as little contact as possible with it to avoid a plethora of potential diseases. With so much attention focused on the contaminated water, not much concern was placed on the toxins in the atmosphere. Because of this oversight, many thousands of workers, volunteers and residents helping with cleanup were, and still are, at risk of breathing in a variety of toxins, including arsenic, lead and asbestos dust. Additionally, the massive flooding increased exposure likelihood, transporting these toxins throughout the city. When the storm passed, New Orleans was in a state of disrepair, chaos and emergencies of all kinds. Widespread criminal acts and looting added to the misery of the devastation and disruption. Officials then began to warn of another life-threatening hazard: that of breathing the contaminated air from leaks in natural gas lines and industrial plants. Added to the leaks from ruptured lines was the dust from demolishing buildings and transporting the debris and the toxic sediment.

Asbestos Exposure

When Hurricane Katrina tore buildings to shreds, untold numbers of products containing asbestos were propelled into the air and the water. Most of the buildings left standing after the hurricane had to be demolished because of flood waters that sat in them for weeks. Asbestos exposure presented a major concern because it was used so extensively in construction in the past. The public was informed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that all buildings constructed before 1975 were almost certain to contain a great deal of asbestos. Also, there is no certainty that structures built after 1975 were asbestos-free, as asbestos-containing products were used even years after the material’s initial regulation. Thus, the public was in very real danger of exposure to asbestos. Asbestos material had been used in abundance during construction of homes and other buildings, from the foundation to the roof. Materials such as cement, pipeline wrap, vinyl floor tile, attic insulation and asbestos-cement shingles were commonly used. With so many buildings still to be demolished, the continued threat of asbestos exposure in New Orleans remains rampant. Research performed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina found there to be a significant amount of asbestos particles in the air. Hundreds of thousands could have been exposed to this toxic material and not even know it. Furthermore, those who came in contact with asbestos may not know they have been infected with lethal quantities of the material for 20 to 50 years after exposure. Mesothelioma, an aggressive lung cancer, is one of the most serious diseases resulting from asbestos exposure. As a result of the long latency period, by the time an individual is diagnosed with this disease, it is already so advanced that few treatment options remain. References: Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency - Katrina