After Hurricane Katrina, medical researchers in New Orleans documented a rise in respiratory ailments among people living in neighborhoods where buildings were being repaired.
The issue wasn't just mold, which can cause problems for years if it isn't mediated properly, said Felicia Rabito, an epidemiologist at Tulane University's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. There was simply so much work being done, families spent their days breathing the fine particles of sanded wood and drywall.
People complained of something that became known as the "Katrina cough," and while it subsided once the dust settled, researchers later found high lead levels in some neighborhoods due to work crews ignoring standards for lead paint removal.
A group of occupational health experts in New York City, including doctors who run programs for people sickened by World Trade Center dust after 9/11, warned last week that workers cleaning up Sandy's wreckage need to protect themselves by suppressing dust with water, wearing masks and being aware of potential asbestos exposure.
"There are clearly sites that you don't want children at ... and it is very challenging for homeowners to know whether it is safe to go home," said Dr. Maida Galvez, a pediatrician and environmental health expert at The Mount Sinai Hospital who is part of a team evaluating hazards in the disaster zone.
U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler has urged FEMA and the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a testing program that could give residents an indication of whether their homes were free of mold, sewage and other hazardous substances.
Farley, New York City's health commissioner, said people entering rooms contaminated by floodwater should wear rubber boots and gloves, and exercise care in cleanup. The hazard posed by spilled sewage is a short-term one and experts say the disease-causing bacteria found in it can be wiped out with a good cleaning. But they say anything absorbent that touched tainted water, like curtains or rugs, should be thrown out.
As for the bitter cold, there was no test needed to tell John Frawley that his home is no place to be spending frigid autumn nights.
"A couple of days ago, I was shivering so badly, I just couldn't stop," he said.
Yet with winter nearly here, he still had no plan for getting his heat working again or his ruined electrical system restored, although he also has passed up some of the programs designed to help people like him.
And he has no intention of heading to a shelter.
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