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Sandy survivors may be experiencing respiratory problems 1 year later

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A 13-year-old cleans her flooded home in the Staten Island borough of New York on November 4, 2012. One year later, some Sandy survivors are experiencing respiratory problems as a result of exposure to mold and other environmental toxins in the aftermath of the storm. (REUTERS/Adrees Latif)

A year after Hurricane Sandy, some people living in once-flooded areas of the East Coast are now dealing with some irritating repercussions – in the form of coughs, asthma, runny noses and respiratory distress.

Dr. Neil Schachter, a pulmonary specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, said he’s treated dozens of people facing health issues that began, or became more exacerbated, in the months following the superstorm.

“Allergic-type symptoms, hay fever symptoms, congestion of the sinuses and nose, sore throat, rashes – these are things that people frequently complain of when they’ve had to either live for prolonged periods of time in a water-damaged environment or have had to move out because of it,” Schachter told FoxNews.com.

According to Schachter, many of these issues result from exposure to mold in addition to a wide variety of other environmental contaminants.

“Mold is not the only thing that grows when you have water damage; also bacteria, all sorts of vermin that are attracted by the damaged situation and all these things, particularly for people who have allergies, are a recipe for problems,” Schachter said.

Furthermore, illnesses triggered by environmental contaminants tend to hit the most vulnerable segments of the population the hardest.  That means for people with preexisting respiratory problems or conditions like cystic fibrosis or diabetes, early intervention is a must.

“If they continue to live in an environment that triggers their underlying illness, be it asthma or bronchitis, or an exacerbation of a preexisting condition, then the condition tends to get worse and becomes more difficult to treat,” Schachter said.

Screening programs

The Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills, N.J., recognized a need for screening programs in nearby towns that had been affected by Sandy.

“As our neighbors to the east, at the shore communities in Ocean and Monmouth counties, started cleaning up and rebuilding and returning to life, our medical experts expressed some of their concerns about the health impacts of the storms,” Joseph Manni, vice president of operations and chief operating officer of the Deborah Heart and Lung Center, told FoxNews.com. “A lot of people, probably unknowingly, were exposed to mold, possibly asbestos and other contaminants…So it was of great concern for us.”

Early in 2013, the Deborah Heart and Lung Center developed the Respiratory Evaluation for Sandy Program (RESP). After receiving a $625,000 grant from the Robin Hood Foundation, the center launched free respiratory screenings for people in Sandy-ravaged areas of New Jersey. The RESP has since screened 884 individuals for potential respiratory problems.

According to Manni, anywhere from 14 to 30 percent of patients screened are referred to a primary care physician or a specialist for follow-up care.

The group has plans to continue offering free screenings through the beginning of 2014 and hopes to continue beyond then as well. As they gather data, they will pass it on to the New Jersey Department of Health, which hopes to use it for future studies, according to Donna Leusner, director of communications at the New Jersey Department of Health.

“The department received federal funding for three studies to examine health impacts among various populations impacted by and recovering from Sandy,” Leusner told FoxNews.com in an email. These populations include first responders, vulnerable individuals and families. “As those studies move forward, the department will be looking to partners like Deborah to see if its data can be incorporated into our efforts.”

‘An entirely different kind of exposure’

While Sandy-related respiratory problems may be abundant now, Dr. Andrew Martin, chair of pulmonary medicine at the Deborah Heart and Lung Center, said he doesn’t expect people to suffer many long-term health consequences.

“Its very rare for mold to actually cause an infection, which I find a lot of people are worried about. You have to be profoundly immunosuppressed,” Martin told FoxNews.com. “It would also have to be a very big exposure. By and large it acts like pollen, which is where the problem comes in.”

Additionally, while some major disasters like the September 11th terrorist attacks left people vulnerable to a wide-range of chronic, serious health conditions, Martin said previous research indicates that hurricanes don’t typically cause such severe complications.

“It’s an entirely different kind of exposure than getting inundated with toxic dust in a massive amount,” Martin said. “Here, it’s people exposed to low-level irritants over a period of time.”

Overall, Martin and his colleagues at the Deborah Heart and Lung Center hope that their screenings will provide people with helpful guidance in terms of whether or not they need to seek treatment for their condition – or maybe just reassure stressed minds.

“A lot of people are just very, very worried, so the value for someone that has been worrying for a year of a normal chest X-ray and pulmonary function test is measurable,” Martin said. “You can see the relief on their faces.”

Click for more information on screenings offered by the Deborah Heart and Lung Center.