AG blocks Ebola waste, but experts say it's safe

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Attorney General Buddy Caldwell succeeded in blocking waste from Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan's Dallas apartment from coming to Louisiana on Monday, drawing hackles from media and scientists who accused him of "fear-mongering."

Truckloads of bed sheets and other materials were decontaminated and then incinerated at extremely high temperatures in Port Arthur, Texas. The resulting ashes were scheduled to be trucked across the Sabine River and into Louisiana under a contract between Veolia Environmental and the Lake Charles landfill run by Chemical Waste Management, a subsidiary of Houston-based Waste Management Inc.

But Caldwell moved quickly, getting a judge to grant a temporary restraining order against Veolia on Monday afternoon. He went on WWL Radio on Monday morning to explain how his concerns grew after it was learned that a nurse who treated Duncan contracted the illness.

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"The nurse was in a HAZMAT, or a moon-suit as we call it, and she got the virus," Caldwell told WWL's Tommy Tucker. "So if it's so safe, if it's handled properly according to the Center for Disease Control, how did she get it?"

WFAA-TV in Dallas reported that the nurse who was infected is Nina Pham. Dr. Thomas Friedan, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Pham is in stable condition and in isolation. On Sunday, he said she was infected because of a "breach in protocol," but appeared to backtrack Monday by saying "we don't know how" Pham was infected.

Infectious disease experts and public health officials across the country have taken pains for the last several weeks to emphasize how hard it is to get Ebola, even when in direct contact with someone who is infected.

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Dr. Susan McLellan, an infectious disease expert at Tulane University who has been to West Africa to treat Ebola patients, has been particularly concerned about creating undue panic.

"I want to remind people that you cannot get Ebola unless you have spent a decent amount of time in close physical contact, as in touching, caring for and being a lot more than in the same room with someone who is obviously ill with Ebola," McLellan said at a news conference last week. "We have to trust the science."

On Monday, McLellan said Caldwell was not trusting the science and may be feeding into irrational fears of how the disease can be spread.

"There are many things we need to be extremely worried about with this outbreak, but there are many things that we simply don't need to be concerned about," she said. "And putting blockades in the face of managing this epidemic only makes it more dangerous for all of us."

McLellan said the Ebola virus can't survive in dry, hot places, and incineration at 2,100 degrees would definitely destroy any Ebola strain.

An article in Mother Jones magazine's online edition Monday presented Louisiana with the "prize for Ebola fear-mongering" based on Caldwell's actions, which were backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal and other Louisiana politicians.

But the most conflicted statement may have come from Chemical Waste Management. The company said it was assured by Veolia that it had completely treated and decontaminated the material from Duncan's apartment before burning it up at 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit, which the CDC says completely kills the virus.

But Chemical Waste Management issued a press release Monday saying: "while accepting this waste poses no threat to the environment or human health, we do not want to make an already complicated situation, more complicated. … We are in contact and working with all the appropriate Louisiana state officials and certainly want these officials to agree that any acceptance of this ash at our Lake Charles facility is safe prior to its acceptance."

Chemical Waste Management spokesmen Rene Faucheux and Marc Ehrhardt did not respond to our requests to explain the apparent contradiction.


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