Construction Workers Suffer Skin Rashes in Katrina, Ritas Wake

Construction workers who traveled to New Orleans to help rebuild the city in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were found to have four distinct skin disorders that were most likely caused by insect bites, according to researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Researchers headed by Rebecca Noe, M.P.H. from the CDC office in Atlanta, found that 22 percent of the diseases treated after the hurricanes were skin or wound infections and rashes. They also explained in the report, which appears in the November issue of Archives of Dermatology, that outbreaks of skin diseases frequently occur following hurricanes and flooding.

Noe and the other researchers surveyed risk factors, skin biopsy specimens and environmental exposures among 136 civilian constructions workers who were living at a New Orleans military base between Aug. 30, 2005 and Oct. 3, 2005. According to the report, the workers lived in wooden huts and tents with limited sanitation facilities, and the authors determined this was the principal contributing factor to the workers’ skin disorders.

“Of 136 workers, 58 reported rash, yielding an attack rate of 42.6 percent,” the authors wrote. Forty-one workers had a physical examination and the researchers found that most of those who were examined (65.9 percent) were diagnosed as having papular urticaria – a sensitivity reaction to insect bites resulting in solid, raised bumps on the skin.

According to the authors, “huts previously flooded as a result of the hurricanes and used for sleeping may have harbored mites, a likely source of papular urticaria.”

Report: Workers’ Huts May Have Been Infested with Mites

In addition, eight of the workers had bacterial folliculitis, an infection that results in inflammation around the hair follicles; six had fiberglass dermatitis, an irritation and inflammation of the skin from being in contact with fiberglass; and two had brachioradial photodermatitis, an abnormal skin reaction to sunlight that causes irritation and burning in the arms.

“A suspected mite infestation of flooded housing units is the most plausible hypothesis, although we were unable to identify the arthropod [such as insects, spiders and scorpions] source,” the authors conclude.

On Sept. 30, 2005, members of the CDC were approached by officials from a New Orleans hospital to assist in investigating an outbreak of skin disease among construction workers. The issue was brought to their attention when authorities from the military base and the construction company’s supervisors became concerned after several workers repairing roofs on the base had rashes so severe they couldn’t continue working.

Results of the study also show that certain ethnic groups were more prone to some types of skin disorders. Native American workers, who worked as roofers or slept in huts that had sustained flooding during Hurricane Katrina, were more likely to suffer from papular urticaria than other workers. Native American workers also were more likely to develop fiberglass dermatitis than workers of another race.

To reduce the chance of contracting hurricane-related skin diseases, the CDC recommended that the workers be relocated from the military base to another location to avoid flooded areas. In addition, the agency suggested that workers should fumigate with a pesticide and that they wear protective clothing at all times.

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