The federal Centers for Disease Control has advised the Louisiana Department of Health Office of Public Health that debris that fell from the space shuttle Columbia should not pose a risk to people’s health.
In a memo distributed to state health departments, the CDC provided an interim assessment of the situation by experts within the Department of Health and Human Services.
In the assessment, the CDC wrote, “NASA has indicated that two toxic liquid fuel components, monomethyl hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide, could have been present at the end of a shuttle voyage. Nevertheless, based principally on the physical characteristics of both liquids, we conclude that neither is likely to have survived the descent of almost 40 miles. Accordingly, we consider that the general population in the area of falling debris and with no close contact with the debris is not at risk from either chemical.”
Federal authorities have advised DHH’s Office of Public Health that the federal government is only coordinating the environmental testing of air, ground and surface water samples. The LDH Office of Public Health is handling the testing of public drinking water systems affected by falling debris in Louisiana.
“Our Office of Public Health is communicating directly with water system operators and elected officials from communities that draw their drinking water from these water bodies. We are working with these communities to have samples drawn for testing,” said LDH Secretary David W. Hood. “We will work with the EPA to test water samples from any site that is known to have shuttle debris or that might be adversely impacted by the debris.”
Madeline McAndrew, assistant secretary for OPH, said her office is coordinating this environmental health activity with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, the Louisiana State Police and the appropriate federal agencies.
In its initial assessment, the CDC explained that people who are conducting search and recovery operations should exercise the most caution and use personal protective equipment when exposed to shuttle debris in the course of their work.
“Although unlikely, it is conceivable that the toxic fuel components or other reagents used in shuttle experiments could have remained in the debris. (Therefore) people who have had physical contact with any liquid or solid debris components should seek medical attention for any symptoms that may develop,” the CDC stated.
The CDC is working with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and state and local health departments and poison control centers to provide physicians and hospitals with information about the chemicals of concern.
DHH’s Office of Public Health is in contact with the CDC, the ATSDR, Barksdale Air Force Base and other federal agencies that are in charge of the Columbia operations. In addition, the health agency is coordinating all responses through the State Office of Emergency Preparedness.