Hurricane Sandy: Recovering from Environmental Dangers in New Jersey

Nov 28, 2012, 4:08 PM

New Jersey

Concerned by reports that volunteers and New Jersey residents are frequently unaware of environmental dangers when cleaning up homes and communities, the New Jersey Department of Health released an advisory earlier this week with advice on staying safe while scrubbing and rehabbing. Mold and materials containing asbestos and lead-based paint are examples of potential hazards in storm-damaged buildings and the advisory urged those tackling the heavy jobs to wear protective equipment appropriate for the work they are doing such as waterproof boots, gloves, goggles, and face masks.

"Homeowners doing cleanup work and the volunteers assisting them are critical assets in New Jersey's recovery efforts, but making sure they protect themselves is equally important," said New Jersey Health Commissioner Mary O'Dowd.

NewPublicHeatlh recently spoke about Hurricane Sandy clean-up safety with Donna Leusner, director of communications for the New Jersey Department of Health; Tina Tan, MD, state epidemiologist and assistant commissioner for epidemiology, environmental and occupational health and Joe Eldridge, director of New Jersey’s Consumer, Environmental and Occupational Health Service.

NewPublicHealth: What kind of environmental concerns specifically are there for those cleaning up the community after the storm?

Dr. Tan: There are concerns about individuals coming into contact with contaminated materials, whether contaminated with chemicals or infectious agents—residuals from flood waters as well as the general debris that might be around. We encourage individuals to take the appropriate precautions to try to avoid any sort of injuries or potential illnesses that could result from contact with these contaminated materials.

NPH: Are people aware of the critical basic information for safe cleanup, such as getting a tetanus shot if they’re injured during the cleanup in such terrible conditions? 



Tina Tan: Probably a lot of people are first concerned about just getting in there to do cleanup and to work on their homes so they might not be thinking about their own personal safety. So, it’s important for us to get reminders out there that individuals might be at risk for injury or illness. The health department always encourages people to be up to date on their vaccines in general, children and adults, and in particular, when people are doing cleanup if they do sustain a wound in the process, that it’s important for them to check with their health care providers both about the wound itself, and a need for a tetanus shot.

NPH: Do you think that people are aware of what supplies to use?

Joe Eldridge: I think in general people are aware, but I think sometimes it gets lost in the urgency to do their own cleanup and get their houses back in order. So you just keep repeating the message as much as we can through our local health departments and the Office of Emergency Management, and try to get advisories up on the web as quickly as we can.

Donna Leusner: We set up a call center November 1, and that information is on our website as well. Mr. Eldridge’s department has been manning that with public health professionals who have been answering questions about food safety and water safety, mold molds and other issues.

NPH:  If people didn’t know to call 2-1-1, would the poison control center in your state also be able to answer some of those questions?

Donna Leusner: Yes, the Poison Control Center is an excellent resource. And we want to reinforce that message. They have seen an increase in calls post-Sandy on issues including carbon monoxide poisoning and concern about misuse of generators. That has been a significant issue. I think five of the Sandy-related deaths have now been attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning and three of those five have been attributed specifically to generator incidents. One of the state’s burn centers has seen an increase post-Sandy, a large increase actually, in the number of folks with burns from candles and generators.



NPH: Who are you partnering with on recovery and response now to help improve safety for residents?

Donna Leusner: I think infrastructure-wise there is a built in set of partners that we had conference calls with beginning the weekend before the storm, and those include county and local public health, hospitals and home health agencies, and certainly the sister agencies of state government. Our Department of Human Services works with their federal partners in setting up a disaster food stamp program and we push out that information and they also have a stress help hotline for folks, and we’ve done press releases to push out that information. I know it has been shared that post-Katrina that there was an increase in both child abuse and domestic violence in the Louisiana area, and so we are working with the Department of Human Services and the Department of Children and Families on flyers and other outlets to get out information about various help lines that are available for families especially as we approach the holidays, which are stressful to begin with. Of course people will be facing additional stress and pressure from being displaced and having economic impacts to their families. And together with the Department of Community Affairs we’re going to work together on an education campaign around generator use safety.

Joe Eldridge: We have also worked closely with the food industry on a strategy we call Operation Food Distribution. When there’s an interruption in food distribution and food service a lot of the larger chains in the state and outside the state provide food and ensure that impacted areas are provided for.

NPH: The recent advisory has information on face masks, known as respirators, people should wear during the clean up. What’s the basic advice? 

Joe Eldridge: The most appropriate mask is called a N95 respirator and it’s appropriate for mold cleanup and general kinds of dust and other types of irritants. The only thing is we do caution is that any respirator that you wear, if you have underlying health conditions such as a respiratory condition or a heart condition or you’re asthmatic, you certainly should discuss it with your primary care physician first, and then follow the recommended guidelines for a proper fit and how to use the respirator properly.

NPH: What other concerns do you have about cleanup?

Joe Eldridge: There have been some comparisons to the cleanup at Ground Zero after 9/11, and while there is some parallel, it’s not quite the same. There were different materials that were involved in 9/11 when those buildings unfortunately came down. They were much finer types of materials that people would breathe in and when workers were there, it was much more of an acute exposure. This is a little bit different, and the materials that we’re more concerned about are not those that you would find in that 9/11 situation. Mold is the biggest concern for us. There are other things we’re concerned about such as asbestos and petroleum-based materials. But if people follow the advisories, it should be less of a concern for us.

Donna Leusner: Post-storm, we’re also working on public safety education for during and after a power outage. I think at the height of the storm something like 2.7 million people in New Jersey were without power, and putting out a press release about generator safety at that point would not have helped them. That education needs to be well disseminated before the problem, both for our state and throughout the nation. There’s a critical lesson to be learned about appropriate use of generators to prevent burns and deaths.

NPH: Is contaminated flood water still a concern?

Joe Eldridge: We keep stressing the importance of hand washing when coming into contact with flood water. Most of the water has receded. There will be some residual contamination left but it’s not the immediate concern that mold is, for example. Mold affects different people in different ways, depending upon one’s sensitivity to it. If you wear a mask and take precautions on how you remove it or how you dispose of the affected materials that play an important part in protecting yourself from having an allergic reaction.  

NPH: What’s critical for volunteers to know about cleanup conditions?

Donna Leusner: The stress and distress issues apply to them as well, and that goes for employees in all the health fields as well, many of whom have either lost homes or had significant damage to homes. The help lines are out there for anyone feeling stressed. It’s important for everyone, volunteers, health workers, residents, to take advantage of the resources that are available.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.