Sinkhole health fears discussed

Louisiana’s state epidemiologist said Thursday that, in his view, the air in Bayou Corne is better than the air in Baton Rouge.

Raoult Ratard offered that assessment when pressed during a community meeting about the possible air quality-related health effects from methane and oil releases at an 8-acre sinkhole, believed caused by the failure of a Texas Brine Co. LLC salt cavern in northern Assumption Parish.

“In my opinion, stay away from Baton Rouge, stick to Bayou Corne, but that’s the facts,” Ratard said.

His comments came after he presented a series of Power Point slides showing that major chemicals posing health concerns, such as benzene and toluene, were in the air at lower concentrations than the minimum considered safe to breathe 24 hour per day for a year.

Benzene, for instance, a known carcinogen, was found at an average level of 0.24 parts per billion while the minimum safe level is 3 parts per billion, according to information Ratard presented at the comunity meeting. The data was based on 3,955 samples taken from the Bayou Corne area from June 22 to Nov. 4.

The air information was part of a larger presentation of data that generally downplayed any environmental health concerns for residents living near the sinkhole between the Grand Bayou and Bayou Corne communities south of La. 70 South.

Other slides noted, for instance, that reported total incidences of invasive cancer and the distributions of cancer types in two ZIP codes covering the affected area were not higher than the state average, nor had there been an abnormal distribution between 1988 and 2008.

Ratard opened his talk with a warning that he would be presenting just the facts and would not be helping people decide what to do based on those facts. He said residents would have to determine for themselves whether they consider the area to be safe to live in.

“It’s up to you to make up your mind,” he said.

And some residents took issue with the presentation, saying they expected more.

Nick Romero, 64, who still lives in Bayou Corne and asked series of questions during the presentation, said he would have like to see the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospital show an interest in finding out what is happening but instead threw “bunch of numbers at us” that don’t mean anything to residents.

“It’s CYA. That’s it,” he said in an interview after the meeting.

Romero said he would like to see some sort of health study, noting that evacuated friends who lived in Bayou Corne have told him they felt much better once they left the area, especially their children.

During his presentation, Ratard suggested health surveys could tell little about whether environmental factors were actual causing ill health effects for a variety of reasons, including the small population of the Bayou Corne community, the self-reporting nature of the surveys and the difficulty in determining whether the reported effects were actually due to the environment or something else.

“You have wasted a lot of time, and you don’t have an answer,” Ratard said.

Some Bayou Corne residents have complained of headaches, nausea and eye irritation from a smell believed emanating from the sinkhole, and worries have also emerged about residents with cancer.

A Louisiana Environmental Action Network survey that Ratard presented showed reported cancer rates in Bayou Corne of 3.6 percent, though questions were raised about whether all residents responded to the survey.

But pointing to the uncertainty about the source reported health problems, Ratard pointed to a national adult health survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that 17 percent of people reported migraines in the past three months, while 8 percent of those surveyed said they had been told they have cancer.

He said that nationally, cancer incidences have been more closely related to diet and tobacco use.