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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Commentary

by Ceferino R. Santiago, M.D. Marco Island, FL

There are many issues confronting the voters of Marco Island this election season. As a retired General Surgeon, my main concern is the health and welfare of our citizenry. More than 900 people, residents of Marco Island, became sick - some of them even hospitalized - during the summer of 2007 construction of the Septic Tank Replacement Program (STRP). One resident even had to undergo an emergency procedure so that he could breathe.

During the STRP construction, hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is released into the atmosphere. Hydrogen sulfide is a gas which is known to be hazardous to one’s health. Two workers on this project succumbed, became ill, and required lengthy hospitalization - all due to exposure to this gas. At this time, I do not know their health status. However, the health hazards of human exposure to this gas (hydrogen sulfide) are well-known throughout the scientific/medical communities. Some of the wide-ranging effects of exposure to H2S include (but are not limited to) damage to the liver, kidneys, cardio/respiratory system, and the nervous system. Many articles have been written about the effects of hydrogen sulfide exposure, including a recent one which appeared in the Wall Street Journal. H2S irritates the eyes, the nasal passages, and the throat by forming sodium sulfide upon contact with the mucosal surfaces. When this gas is inhaled deep into the lungs, it enters the blood stream via alveolar diffusion. The eyes, lungs and nervous system are target organs in humans. In a recent study, health effects and neurophysiological functions were studied in former workers and nearby residents who were exposed to H2S from a desulfurization unit at an oil refinery. The study reported that exposed individuals were more likely to demonstrate persistent alterations in neuralbehavior function. Once in the blood stream, the majority of the H2S is oxidized into sulfates by the liver and excreted in the urine. An individual who has a liver condition, like alcoholic cirrhosis, or chronic hepatitis due to the non-A, non-B hepatitis virus, are more susceptible to aggravation of their respective conditions. An individual who has Diabetes, wherein the kidney is already compromised, might go into a complete renal failure. People with pre-existing conditions, patients on chemotherapy, the very old and the very young, are all more susceptible to the ill effects of H2S.

It is wise to also consider the long-term effects of exposure to this gas. A population exposed intermittently for two months to concentrations of approximately 0.002 to 8 ppm (parts per million) resulted in complaints of nausea, headache, shortness of breath, sleep disturbance and eye and throat irritation. Exposure of approximately 10 to 14 ppm for four to seven hours, were reported to result in conjunctivitis. This clearly indicates that H2S is a threat to public health - especially to those located closest to the potential fallout areas of the source.

After numerous citizen complaints, the City Council finally agreed to hire Environ to monitor the H2S. During the testing and monitoring periods, some areas on the island were identified as well above the “acceptable” levels of H2S exposure and caused harmful effects to living organisms. The scientist from Environ clearly stated that H2S is well known to be present throughout the State of Florida. So, one has to ask: Why were NO feasibility studies conducted prior to the commencement of the multi-million-dollar Septic Tank Replacement Program (STRP) on Marco Island - which is an alluvial island? If this would have been done, acceptable precautionary measures and safety procedures could have been planned for and implemented in order to protect the citizens of Marco Island from exposure to lethal gas (or gases). On numerous occasions I asked the City Council to test for the presence of other gases and substances that might be released into the environment. This plea fell on deaf ears. Recently, an article appeared in our local newspaper that a scientist reportedly found inconclusive evidence of mercury in the samples being examined - and that a second sample was sent to a private laboratory for further investigation. If there is smoke, there is fire. I also wonder why the City Council approved to spend $10,000 to send a representative from Environ to Washington D.C., Atlanta or Tallahassee to “lobby” to INCREASE the acceptable levels of H2S for Marco Island? Does the City Council believe that the people of Marco Island have more tolerance to H2S than the rest of the country? I don’t think so.

From September 27, 2007 up to and including January 10, 2008, I have been following the birth announcements in our local newspaper. There have been 88 births reported for residents of Marco Island during this time period. Thirty-six of these newborns were below 7 pounds at birth. The normal average birth weight nationwide is in the range of 7 lb. 2 oz. and 7 lb. 6 oz. The acceptable range of low birth weight nationwide is 4 to 8%. The rate of 40.9% low birth weight on Marco Island is extremely high and not acceptable. Of the above low birth weights reported: one infant weighed only 3 lb. 1 oz; another was 3 lb. 3 oz.; another at 4 lb. 10 oz., and another at 5 lb. 2 oz. It is also important to remember that after birth the infant will lose additional weight for several weeks - which is a normal physiological process. There are numerous causes for low birth weight, and one of these causes is the environment. All I know is that there is one common factor with all of these infants: the parents live on Marco Island, and have been exposed to H2S (or other gases) directly or indirectly. The lower the birth weight, the poorer the prognosis is for normal growth and development. There are also unreported cases of miscarriages, but due to the “Privacy Act,” I could not obtain the actual number.

Definitely, we need a positive change in our local government. Dr. Andrew Guidry, Mr. Joe Batte, Mr. Roger Hall and Mr. “Butch” Neylon are highly intelligent individuals. They are the embodiment of integrity and excellence without arrogance. Their promise to stop the STRP shows that they are concerned about the health and welfare of ALL of the residents and visitors on Marco Island. We definitely need these gentlemen on our City Council.

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