Floodwaters Resulting From Hurricane Katrina Contain High Levels of Bacteria, EPA Says
In the first preliminary findings from the Environmental Protection Agency's samplings for contaminants in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, data released Wednesday show high amounts of E. coli and coliform in the water in residential areas of the city. According to the Los Angeles Times, the data released thus far only compare chemical levels in floodwaters to drinking water standards, "not other long-term or chronic risks and routes of exposure."
The counts of the bacteria exceeded the measures of the testing equipment -- which is intended for use in recreational waters -- but EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said the detected bacteria themselves are not dangerous. However, he added that they indicate raw sewage is present in the water. Water-quality experts say it is "virtually certain" that the floodwaters contain viruses related to the sewage that can induce diarrhea, vomiting, fever and other gastrointestinal symptoms, the Times reports. Viruses and other pathogens, such as hepatitis A, shigella, giardia and salmonella, also might be present in the water, experts say (Cone, Los Angeles Times, 9/8).
Meanwhile, five people have died of infections from the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus, and a CDC spokesperson said additional deaths are likely in the New Orleans area because the bacteria can enter the body through open wounds in people exposed to polluted water in the region, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports. Those with chronic illnesses or weakened immune systems are most susceptible to developing complications from bacterial infections (Pope, New Orleans Times-Picayune, 9/8).
Lead levels in the floodwaters exceed health standards for drinking water, according to EPA. Johnson said the lead levels "are of greatest concern for children," adding, "This may seem obvious: No one should drink the floodwaters, especially children" (Los Angeles Times, 9/8).
CDC Director Julie Gerberding said the health threat created by floodwaters emphasizes the importance of leaving the city. "This water is not going to be safe to drink or to be in any time soon," she said (CQ HealthBeat, 9/7). She added that the bacteria associated with the deaths is not cholera and is "not spread person to person" (Howard Price, Washington Times, 9/8).
In a joint advisory issued Tuesday, EPA and HHS urged those who come in contact with the water to frequently wash their hands and see a doctor if symptoms of an infection occur (CQ HealthBeat, 9/7).
Several newspapers recently published articles addressing the health impact of the hurricane. Summaries appear below.
- Insurance: Louisiana Insurance Commissioner J. Robert Wooley on Wednesday released a draft order barring health insurers from canceling policies that were in effect Aug. 26, when a state of emergency was declared, the Hartford Courant reports. Some insurers, including Aetna and WellPoint, already have temporarily lifted some policy requirements for members affected by the hurricane, including allowing coverage of care from out-of-network providers and waiving preapproval and referral requirements (Hartford Courant, 9/8).
- Pharmaceutical companies: The Wall Street Journal on Thursday examined the efforts of drug companies to "skir[t] the red tape that has hampered some other relief efforts" to provide pharmaceutical supplies to areas affected by the hurricane. Drug makers including Abbott Laboratories, Wyeth, Eli Lilly and GlaxoSmithKline have used overnight shipping and corporate jets to deliver the supplies, some of which are being given to patients at no cost (Chase, Wall Street Journal, 9/8).
- Hospitals: New Orleans-area hospitals that "barely have had a chance to recover from the storm's initial assault" are preparing for a "second wave of injuries from the storm" as people become infected with bacteria in the floodwaters or are injured in cleanup efforts, the Wall Street Journal reports (McKay, Wall Street Journal, 9/8).
- Medicaid: Host states in which health care services are being provided to evacuees "are counting on reimbursement from the federal government and from the Medicaid programs of evacuees' home states," USA Today reports (Moore, USA Today, 9/8).
- Hospital ship: The USNS Comfort, a 1,000 bed Navy hospital ship, will arrive on the waters of Louisiana and Mississippi on Thursday to provide medical services to those affected by the hurricane, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. On Wednesday, the crew of doctors, nurses and technicians prepared for patients by practicing drills and readying supplies (Holcomb, Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/8).
PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on Wednesday included an interview with Gerberding about the health threats to evacuees and rescue workers presented by floodwaters (Ifill, "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," PBS, 9/7). The complete transcript is available online. The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.