Nov. 25, 2012 at 4:49 AM ET
From his perch on top of his father’s house in Breezy Point, N.Y., Ken Court can see an array of health disasters in the making.
“There are asbestos roofs that have collapsed near the ocean,” says Court, a 52-year-old roofer. “There is a lot of dust. You see people walking around with masks on. You use the hand cleaners all day long.”
Breezy Point sits at the tip of the peninsula jutting into the waters south of Brooklyn where Jamaica Bay, New York Bay and the Atlantic Ocean come together. Much of the close-knit, blue-collar neighborhood was destroyed when Superstorm Sandy hit three weeks ago – swamped in the storm surge, roofs ripped by flailing winds or burned to the ground in a six-alarm fire that took out block after block of homes.
Now it’s one of the last places left without power or clean water, with no ETA on when either will be restored. And as Court works day in and day out to clean up the mess, he sees long-term trouble wherever he looks.
"You should really wear masks. I remember that everyone in 9/11, when they went there to help, they got sick,” Court told NBCNews in a telephone interview.
Asbestos and other chemicals from the collapsed World Trade Centers created a pall of dust that persisted in lower Manhattan for months after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Firefighters, police and other rescue workers are eligible for federal compensation for the illnesses they have developed since the cleanup – most recently 50 different types of cancer.
People who were in the area have higher death rates in general than similar populations, and were especially likely to develop respiratory diseases and asthma. Asbestos can cause a rare type of lung cancer called mesothelioma.
While the dust caused by the Sandy cleanup isn’t nearly as bad, Court isn't taking chances. Asbestos is only a problem if it is kicked up in dust and breathed in – but he’s seeing plenty of dust being generated as wrecking crews pile up and remove the debris. "Those corrugated roofs on the houses down by the ocean – they’re all asbestos,” he said.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene advises on its website that "While Sandy has not caused problems with outdoor air quality, indoor dust, mold, fumes from temporary heating sources and the use of strong cleaning products can be irritating to the eyes, throat, and lungs. Dust can also be produced by repair and debris removal. In addition, debris removal and repair work can lead to injuries of various types.”
What concerns Court most, however, is mold. His 79-year-old father, Rod, has emphysema and needs supplemental oxygen. “We got a foot of water up into the first floor. We are just ripping everything out and starting fresh,” said Court, who grew up in Breezy Point and who now lives in Port Jefferson Station on Long Island.
“Right now I have men ripping out the tile. We can’t take a chance with mold with my dad,” Court added. “Now that we took up the tile floor, it’s all wet under there and it’s black.”
Health officials say Court’s doing the right thing. Anything that might turn moldy should be removed or cleaned with a bleach solution. Mold spores can cause allergic reactions or asthma in people who are sensitive to them.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has done many studies on the health dangers that linger after hurricanes, but the CDC's parent agency, the Health and Human Services Department, is not making federal officials available to talk about Sandy's aftermath.
Still no clean water
Despite the flooding that swamped water treatment plants, poured into subway tunnels and flushed raw sewage into rivers, most of New York City’s tapwater supply remained clean. But Breezy Point’s water pipes were damaged so badly that the water still isn’t safe to drink, according to local authorities.
“Breezy Point Cooperative is in the process of re-establishing its internal drinking water system and the City will meet with the Breezy Point Cooperative to ensure that it can safely and reliably provide potable water to its residents," the New York health department said in a statement.
“DO NOT drink the water from the faucets. Do not use this water to cook, wash yourself or wash food, make ice, brush teeth or for any other activity involving consumption of water,” the Breezy Point Cooperative web site advises. It’s not even okay to boil it – meaning chemicals could be contaminating the water, also.
Andrew Juhl, an ecologist and oceanographer at Columbia University, has been testing the waters around New York City for years and knows well what could have seeped into the broken water pipes at Breezy Point.
“With the hurricane there was this enormous flood of water that came into the city and flooded sewage treatment plants and also damaged pipes,” Juhl told NBCNews. “It is possible that there was a lot of sewage released. We don’t really know. No one was out sampling at that time.”
His tests the days after Sandy hit showed lots of bacteria in the water, however – enough to where people shouldn’t touch the water without washing afterwards.
“We measure Enterococcus,” he said. It’s found in the guts of warm-blooded animals, including people. “If you find it in the environment, you know it was recently in the body of a warm-blooded animal.” While enterococci are not themselves a big threat to health, if they’re in the water, so are other germs. These include anything that the people and animals in the area contribute to sewage, from hepatitis to parasites such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia lamblia thatmay cause diarrhea and stomach cramps.
One thing that people may fear is cholera, but cholera isn’t commonly found in New Yorkers, and so it’s very unlikely to be in the sewage or water.
“The most common illness that people get is gastrointestinal problems,” Juhl says. “They get nausea, diarrhea, cramping, skin rashes, eye infections -- that kind of thing.”
You don’t have to drink the water to get ill – people who touch the water can touch their eyes, mouths and noses and become infected. Juhl’s team sampled flooded basements in Queens and found the water was teeming with bacteria commonly found in sewage. They also found germs all over dried-out storm debris.
“The stuff we sampled up in Rockland County had been sitting around dry for a week and it still had really high (bacterial) counts. That actually surprised me,” Juhl said. “We haven’t done that kind of sampling before and we don’t have a context for it. Maybe there are really high counts there all the time.”
Nonetheless, it could make people handling it sick. “They should wear gloves. They should wear face masks. They should make sure they clean themselves really well before they eat. We don’t know what the specific threat is. l would be prudent,” Juhl advises.
Court’s doing just that. “Most people are wearing protective equipment when they are working in the basements,” he said. “You wear boots.”