Analysis of Katrina's health, environmental effects to be aided by website with layers of data


GIS technology combines various kinds of maps, satellite images and other information

DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke University environmental scientists are amassing large overlays of Geographical Information System (GIS) data for a website that public health and environmental experts will use to assess effects of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and elsewhere in the stricken Gulf region.

That information includes "flooded areas, the locations of medical facilities, police stations, fire stations and industrial facilities, warehouses that might be flooded out, agricultural operations, refineries and oil pipelines, among other things," said project leader Marie Lynn Miranda. "There's just layer upon layer of different kinds of data that, when geographically correlated, could aid assessment of hazards and the process of recovery," she said.

Miranda is an associate professor at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, and is a principal investigator and does GIS mapping for mercury at Duke's Superfund Basic Research Center. She also directs the Children's Environmental Health Initiative, which uses GIS technology to help authorities evaluate childhood exposures to various contaminants in North Carolina.

The Katrina data are being integrated by Miranda's GIS programmer and Duke alumna Sharon Edwards.

GIS technology combines various kinds of maps, satellite images and other information to provide investigators insights and connections that might not be recognized if the components were considered separately. Another advantage is that the information is all spatially referenced, meaning that all the information is connected to a particular geographic location.

Miranda's involvement resulted from a Labor Day conference call with officials at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in Research Triangle Park, who are creating the website as part of its initial response to a national effort to assess the large array of potential toxic contaminants in the floodwaters.

Among the layers of relevant data, said Richard Di Giulio, a Nicholas School professor of environmental toxicology, "are effects that might be associated with oil refinery petrochemicals -- compounds like hydrocarbons for which cancer is sometimes a major long term health hazard." Di Giulio directs Duke's Superfund Basic Research Center.

"Pesticide chemical companies down there, depending on what they make, could be sources of potent neurotoxins and neurodevelopmental toxins, Di Giulio said. "There could also be concerns about radioactive materials and chemicals from flooded hospitals."

Di Giulio enlisted Miranda and her colleagues following conference calls involving all 20 university-based Superfund Centers, which do basic research into the effects and detection of toxic chemicals covered by the federal Superfund Act in coordination with the NIEHS.

"Dr. Miranda is organizing non-confidential information that's already out there on the web or through other kinds of data sources," said Bill Suk, who directs NIEHS's Superfund Basic Research Program as well as its Center for Risk and Integrative Sciences.

"It's an incredible amount of data that's coming in," Suk added. "All the data is already out there, but it's never been put together and integrated in this way. So this is a resource that is very valuable."

Researchers from Columbia University, the University of Kentucky, San Diego State University and the Research Triangle Institute have all sent layers to be added to the GIS project being compiled at Duke.

After the overlaid GIS information is made interactive with help from a supercomputer at San Diego State University, the data will be used in the field to aid environmental and health investigators, Suk said

For example, Suk said he understood that the Centers for Disease Control is attempting to analyze health data on people from the area who have been scattered through various refuge centers in Texas. "The GIS system that we're developing should help explain what they might have been exposed to," he added.

"If we could backtrack and develop a listing of those people, where they lived and what they were potentially exposed to, then we can start developing some long range research projects that could fully evaluate whether or not there are going to be any potential health consequences down the road," Suk said.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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