Friday, June 25, 2010

The Gulf oil spill and advice for residents: Be aware and prepare

The ongoing underwater oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has created a host of well-publicized environmental problems, from oil-soaked birds to goo-saturated beaches. But officials are also warning of another potential hazard: The threat to the health of people who live in the region.

Like any disaster, there are steps that people can take to be prepared for an environmental crisis in their community — which can happen anytime, anywhere and without warning. Some good general advice? Always have an adequate supply of bottled water stored(PDF) in case tap water becomes contaminated. Pay close attention to the news and be mindful of warnings to evacuate or to stay inside your home. Actively seek out information from reliable sources, such as government officials and your local health department, and share their advice with your neighbors and others who you care about.

In the case of the Gulf oil disaster, health officials have released some specific tips for people who live in the region. Among the recommendations:

• Be aware of the air: People with respiratory problems or asthma should carry their inhalers or medication with them when near the shoreline, or anywhere they can smell chemicals in the air. Even though humans can smell gas from oil wells before it has the potential to cause harm, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that those with respiratory issues may be more sensitive to the strong smell of oil.

• Special tips for moms-to-be: Pregnant women should take special care when coming into contact with food, water or air that may be contaminated by the oil leak and avoid areas where there are reports of oil reaching the shore, according to CDC.

• Stay out of the water: Although drinking water is not "expected to be affected"by the disaster, swimming at beaches can result in skin rashes or other effects. Before making plans to head to Gulf coast beaches, do some quick research on their status.

• Pay attention to food warnings: Federal health officials are monitoring the oil leak’s impact on seafood and will issue warnings if anything is deemed unsafe. If you are unsure whether something is safe to eat, contact your local health department.

• Watch out for winds: If a hurricane hits in the Gulf region, strong rains and winds could spread around oil or contaminated debris, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns, so caution is advised when cleaning up after storms.

For more information, visit the CDC and FDA websites, as well as your state and local health departments’ websites.

Photo credit: A worker cleans up oil that washed ashore in Grand Terre, La., on June 3. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Third Class Ann Marie Gordon

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Get ready for summer activities in the heat

Today’s guest blog was prepared by the Recreation and Sports Subcommittee of the Injury Control and Emergency Services Committee of APHA and is by APHA member Sara B. Newman, MCP, DrPH, public risk management program director with the National Park Service and a commander in the U.S. Public Health Service.

Summer is officially here on Monday, and with it comes long days, lots of sun, hot weather and increased risk for activity-related heat injury. The kids are out of school and we’re all more active. Whether your favorite activity is walking in the neighborhood, hiking in the woods, running a marathon or fishing on the lake, a little advance planning can go a long way toward making your adventure safe and trouble-free.

1. Acclimatize gradually to the heat. Let your body adapt to warmer temperatures by gradually increasing activity. Kids involved in youth sports? Make sure coaches follow appropriate acclimatization guidelines such as those from the National Athletic Training Association.

2. Take a break! Adjust activity level and take frequent rest breaks during hot weather activities.

3. Hydrate early, often and after. Adequate hydration ensures your body’s ability to regulate temperature through sweating. Thirst is a poor indicator of adequate hydration, so be sure to stop for regular drinks whether or not you are thirsty.

4. Take precautions during high-intensity activities. You should drink only as much fluid as you lose due to sweating during a high-intensity sport — usually no more than 34 ounces — or about 1 liter — of water an hour during extended exercise, otherwise you risk losing too much salt in the body.

5. Consider drinking sports beverages during demanding activities. Ask your doctor about replacing water with sports beverages that contain electrolytes when participating in endurance events such as marathons, triathlons and other demanding activities.

6. Take the sunscreen! Sunburn can slow your ability to shed heat, is painful and can lead to serious illness in severe cases. The long-term effects of sunburn have also been linked to skin cancer. A little prevention goes a long way, so make sure to apply adequate amounts of sunscreen early and often. Also, cover especially susceptible areas with clothing and wear a hat to protect your face and sunglasses to protect your eyes.

7. Check out the weather forecast and be prepared. The National Weather Service’s Heat Index chart takes into account heat and humidity and can help you decide whether you should modify your outdoor activities to avoid heat-related injuries. Learn more about prevention during heat waves (PDF). Check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s "Tips for Preventing Heat Illness."

8. Know the risk factors for heat-related injury. Children and the elderly are more susceptible to heat-related injury. Certain common medications, such as diuretics or amphetamines, may also increase the risk for heat injury. Other risk factors include obesity, pre-existing medical conditions and poor conditioning.

9. Learn the warning signs. Behavioral signs include irritability, inattention, stupor, lethargy and fatigue. Physical symptoms — from mild to severe — include thirst, headache, dizziness, profuse sweating, rapid heart rate, complete cessation of sweating, pallor, vomiting and loss of consciousness.

10. Severe heat injury is a medical emergency. Review first aid procedures for heat injuries before heading out in hot weather. Always start by getting the victim to a cooler place.

Photo Credit: Art courtesy of iStockphoto

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Friday, June 11, 2010

There’s no place like home: Encountering a tornado while away

Today’s guest blog is by Mighty Fine, MPH, a health analyst at APHA who works on the Association’s Get Ready campaign.

If emergency preparedness were a class, I’d ace it. I’m talking summa cum laude status. I have a stockpile, an emergency plan and I’ve even practiced living off of bottled water for two days. If a disaster were to occur while I was at home, I’d be prepared. The problem is I don’t always stay at home.

Like many people, I travel a great deal for work and play. I’m usually so focused on my reason for traveling that I don’t give emergency preparedness much thought. However the recent tornado activity in the U.S. Midwest forced me to think more about preparedness on the road. I had a trip planned there, and after watching the news coverage of the twisters roaring through these communities I was a little worried about my travel. It’s not like once I got there I could click my heels three times and return to the safe haven I call home. My best bet was to be as prepared as possible while at the hotel.

I usually pack light so I can carry my bag on the plane to avoid checked baggage fees, but this time was different. I packed a flashlight, a small radio and some extra batteries, which preparedness experts recommend to carry if you are a frequent traveler. My flight there was a little bumpy so I expected that a storm was on the horizon.

Upon checking into the hotel, I asked the clerk about the tornado warning procedure and evacuation expectations. I even took a tour of the shelter area. Once I got to my room, I checked out the emergency exit diagram on the back of the door and committed it to memory. Not long after I checked in, I could hear the rain pouring down on the roof above me. I watched the sky change from blue to gray within moments.

From my hotel room, I heard the hallway doors close automatically and moments later the tornado warning siren rang loudly, signaling that it was time to go to the shelter area. I hopped up with my radio and flashlight and exited my room. As I was familiar with the evacuation route, I knew where to go, and since I had my preparedness supplies, I was more at ease. I was able to help direct other people to shelter. Luckily, the tornado did not hit the hotel, and my fellow guests and I stayed safe.

My experience with sheltering from a tornado in an unfamiliar place could happen to anyone who travels. If you are traveling to a tornado-prone area, pack emergency supplies, and familiarize yourself with evacuation routes and shelter areas. Pay attention to the weather and listen to the radio. If the sky becomes threatening, head for shelter right away. Remember that it is important to be prepared, no matter where you are.

Photo credit: A tornado in Kansas, May 2008. Photo by Chris Foltz, courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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Friday, June 04, 2010

Get Ready Mailbag: Shaking hands can spread germs. What to do?

Welcome to another installment of the Get Ready Mailbag, when we take time to answer questions sent our way by readers like you. Have a question you want answered? Send an e-mail to

Q. I’ve read that shaking hands can spread germs. When should you avoid shaking hands? What if you can’t?

A. The handshake, a greeting used in work settings, at formal occasions or among friends, is a common practice in the United States and in many parts of the world. Hands are extended as a sign of welcome, respect and courtesy. But what do you do if you are sick or the person who is about to shake your hand is sick?

Refusing a handshake may come across in social circles as rude, but there’s good reason to think twice before reciprocating with a firm grip. Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose or mouth. That “something” could be an unwashed, outstretched hand of a neighbor or coworker.

During the recent H1N1 influenza pandemic, concerns about preventing the spread of germs led to greater scrutiny of the common handshake. In some faith communities where greeting fellow worshippers or “passing of the peace” are regular rituals, religious leaders advised against or even forbid shaking hands. And the World Health Organization has promoted “elbow bumps” as an alternative greeting to a hand shake.

So what to do? If you have been sick and someone extends a hand, you might simply say, “I’m sorry, but I am getting over a cold and don’t want to get you sick.” Or, if someone has been hacking into his or her hand and there is no way to politely decline, avoid touching your eyes, mouth or nose, and wash your hands with soap and water soon after.

As always, it is best to stay home if you are sick and to avoid contact with sick people when possible, but in those unavoidable situations, the simple act of hand washing with soap and water remains the most effective way of keeping germs at bay. And make sure you’re washing properly with APHA’s Get Ready campaign fact sheet on hand washing, available in both English and Spanish. (PDF) For your best protection against flu, doctors also recommend getting vaccinated.

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