Health Study

The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
July 19, 2000
By Thomasi McDonald, Rachel Rinaldo

Soon after Hurricane Floyd's floodwaters receded in the historic town of Princeville, former Mayor Glennie Matthewson started raising questions about the long-term health effects that may have also inundated the region.

Ten months after the worst natural disaster in the state's history, Matthewson, 56, is still raising environmental safety issues to anyone within earshot.

"We're taking a big enough risk by moving back into an area that might flood again," Matthewson said. "But with the environment, we might be sitting on a ticking time bomb. And it isn't just Princeville. This issue applies across the board."

Such environmental concerns prompted two charitable organizations to fund a one-year project that will study the long-term health effects of the 1999 floods. Two grants totalling $511,267, announced this week, will enable the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services to investigate the prevalence of potentially harmful bacteria in counties flooded by Floyd. The grants - $411,267 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and $100,000 from the Burroughs-Wellcome fund - will attempt to assess the long-term health effects of the floods.

On Sept. 16, Floyd dumped more than 20 inches of rain on Eastern North Carolina. Just days before, Hurricane Dennis had finished pummeling the region with 10 inches of rain. The flooding from the storms' drenching rains swelled the region's waterways and caused the widespread release of toxic chemicals, human and animal waste, and other pollutants into the environment.

While taking immediate measures to protect people's health, state health officials conceded that the possible long-term effects of the disaster are unknown.

"This is a groundbreaking study and we're real pleased that we're able to support this situation," said Dr. Dennis McBride, the state health director. McBride said that drinking water contamination and antibiotic-resistant organisms are areas of particular concern.

Bill Pate, assistant branch head in the Division of Public Health, said that flooded human-waste treatment plants, hog farms, and poultry farms may have contaminated local drinking water supplies. Researchers identified 1,500 contaminated drinking water wells in the aftermath of the floods.

Pate said that these wells were decontaminated, and then re-sampled, but that not all were found to be safe for drinking. With the grants, researchers will test wells further, and for different kinds of microbes.

"Having this information will help us better advise the citizens of North Carolina what the risks are and help us develop strategies for the future," Pate said.

The major health concern with contaminated wells is gastroenteritis, or digestive system upsets, Pate said. But the Division of Public Health is also worried about antibiotic-resistant organisms getting into the environment and causing problems for people with weak immune systems.

Antibiotics are commonly used in animal agriculture as a growth stimulant. "With the growing numbers of antibiotic-resistant organisms we're very concerned about the crossover effect," McBride said.

The project, which is a collaborative effort with the University of North Carolina Schools of Medicine and Public Health and the University of Maryland School of Medicine, begins immediately and will continue for a year. A final report is expected next July.

Until the state study comes up with definitive answers, Matthewson said he refuses to drink or cook with his town's tap water.

"I even hesitate to take a bath in it," he said.

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