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Hurricane Sandy causing 'Rockaway cough'

CYRIL JOSH BARKER Amsterdam News Staff | 12/21/2012, 12:26 p.m.
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Several weeks after Hurricane Sandy, residents living in affected areas in Queens are not only dealing with the painstaking task of rebuilding, but also concerns about their health.

Those living in the area call it the "Rockaway cough" and say they are suffering. Health experts report that a wide variety of conditions are resulting in the respiratory condition, as some 12,000 residents continue to live in flood-affected areas.

Some factors that are causing air to be unclean in the area include homes that are unheated, mold, dust and people living weeks without basic necessities, hindering their bodies from fending off germs. Mold, for example, is causing wheezing in those with allergies.

Toxic materials in the air as cleanup and repairs continue are airborne, making even some schools in the areas unsafe to be occupied. Some homeowners are also struggling with the problem.

The city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recently conducted interviews with several mobile health providers in the Rockaways to get a better idea of just how severe the problem is.

"Providers in the Rockaways have identified patients with respiratory symptoms that they have attributed to viral respiratory infections, exposure to respiratory irritants due to cleanup work or exacerbations of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD]," said Dr. Jay Verma, deputy commissioner of Disease Control in the Department of Health. "According to these providers, many patients with signs and symptoms of asthma or COPD had a pre-existing diagnosis of these conditions and had run out of their regular medications."

An analysis of the city's emergency department visits reveals that asthma visits increased slightly in the immediate days following Hurricane Sandy in the Rockaways, Coney Island and Staten Island, but they have now returned to normal. In addition, routine monitoring of outdoor air quality by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has not identified any new air-quality risks since Hurricane Sandy.

Doctors recommend that those living in affected areas open windows to air out rooms as much as possible, use a mask and safety goggles and N-95 respirators when cleaning, and that they wash their hands with soap and water.

"As the recovery from Hurricane Sandy continues, the Health Department urges New Yorkers to protect themselves from health and injury risks during cleanup. 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," said Health Commissioner Thomas Farley.