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Volunteers face health hazards
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Volunteers, eager to help in storm-ravaged areas, face health and safety hazards left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Jane Clary said volunteers often have a selfless attitude that is not preoccupied with personal risks they may face as they try to help others. Many "just pick up and go" to offer aid without taking some important precautions or considering the absence of medical care in some remote areas.
"Everyone venturing into the disaster area should be current on their vaccinations, especially tetanus," she said. "Any skin rash or wound can become infected and lead to additional or worse problems than the initial injury or rash."
Clary said people working in the hurricane zone need to be healthy and have lots of stamina before venturing into the worst areas.
"Volunteer workers will quickly become exhausted, and that can lead to careless mistakes and injuries," Clary said. "They need to carry medical supplies for the most common injuries such as scrapes, cuts and puncture wounds, as well as know how to reach medical resources for more serious injuries. People from outside the area need to know where they are to give directions if they or someone with them is injured."
Muscle or back strain from heavy lifting or extended use of a chain saw can sideline a person from additional service.
"Know your limits and don't try to be a super hero by lifting large items alone," she said.
Clary encouraged people working in the cleanup to wash their hands as often as possible, especially before preparing or eating food. Alcohol-gel sanitizers can work in place of or in addition to water. Make sure water and food are safe to consume.
Insect repellant containing DEET is important to reduce the threat of mosquito-borne illnesses such as West Nile Virus and encephalitis. Long-sleeved shirts, long pants and socks will help protect skin from mosquitoes and other scrapes.
Additional hazards may be found in the cleaning supplies themselves. Efforts to win the battle against mold and mildew can prompt people to use more chemicals than necessary. Never mix bleach with other products containing ammonia. Face masks and respirators can help minimize reactions to fungal exposure.
"Wear protective gloves, clothing and gear when handling hazardous materials. If your skin comes in contact with something hazardous, wash it as soon as possible," she said.
Use caution around wild or stray animals.
"The storm has upset their lives as well, and they may be more aggressive or defensive than normal," Clary said.
Jimmy Bonner, an associate Extension professor in agricultural and biological engineering, said damaged homes and storage buildings can harbor hazardous chemicals that could threaten the health of people and animals in the area. During the clean-up process, people should be extra cautious when encountering hazardous materials.
"Virtually every household contains hazardous products. These can be identified by reading the label for words like 'caution', 'warning' or 'danger/poison'," Bonner said. "Some common household products that are hazardous include items such as nail polish and remover, spot removers, moth balls and shoe polish. Some medicines even produce potentially hazardous wastes when they are disposed."
Other examples of hazardous materials include home and garden pesticides, drain and oven cleaners, furniture polish and wax, paints, stains, wood preservatives, and used motor oil and antifreeze.
Bonner said with no hazardous waste disposal facilities in Mississippi, the conditions caused by Katrina make proper disposal of hazardous products especially difficult.
"Under normal conditions, hazardous products should not be taken to a dump or landfill, or combined with household trash," Bonner said. "Don't pour them down the kitchen drain or on the ground near a well or septic tank."
Individuals should check with authorities for guidance on how to dispose of hazardous materials to prevent further damage to the environment, people or animals.
An emergency order posted on Sept. 13 on the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality Web site states that because of the magnitude of damage caused by Katrina, household hazardous wastes may be dumped in a municipal solid waste landfill.
Despite this exception, Bonner said if possible, those products should be taken to a hazardous waste collection point or safely stored until such a collection occurs.