The damage and destruction left behind by a massive twister that hit Greensburg, Kansas on May 4th continues to linger. Now workers who have been cleaning up the small town have developed mysterious symptoms including, a persistent cough and sore throat.
Aptly named the “Greensburg cough,” health officials believe that contaminated dust left by the tornado is to blame. At this point, there is no way to determine how many people have reported symptoms or whether serious complications will result. At least one indivdual was diagnosed with pneumonia after working to clean damp and moldy debris from the damaged town. Health officials said that because that person had grain dust allergies in the past, the dust from the storms likely aggravated his preexisting condition.
It took nearly two weeks for officials to recognize the danger of contaminated dust in the area. Since that time, people entering Greensburg have been cautioned of the problem, and today it is common for anyone going into Greensburg to be issued a dust mask. Along with toxic mold and other airborne particles, officials are also concerned about high levels of asbestos in the area. Another continuing issue is the truck traffic throughout the town, as 1,500 to 1,600 truckloads of debris has headed to the area’s landfill. No dobut, this has increased the spread of dust with each trip.
The Environmental Protection Agency has been onsite and monitoring air quality in Greensburg since shortly after the storms took place. In all the EPA has set up eight locations to test for contaminents on a daily basis. Additionally, the EPA has helped remove or monitor releases from fuel tanks, chlorine cylinders, anhydrous ammonia tanks, propane tanks and other hazardous materials.
The Centers for Disease Control cautions that in any situation intense exposures to any type of dust and smoke can cause eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, triggering coughing and sneezing. The symptoms generally are not a problem if a person is exposed only briefly to the irritants; but if exposure is more long-term or at high levels, more danger to health exists. For example, individuals became ill after the twin towers collapsed in 2001 in New York City and after Hurricane Katrina.
People with asthma or other respiratory conditions should avoid the area, if at all possible.