Voices from the Field: Behrooz Behbod

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NCEH Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer, Behrooz Behbod. Photo courtesy Behrooz Behbod.
NCEH Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer, Behrooz Behbod. Photo courtesy Behrooz Behbod.

I’m Behrooz Behbod, an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer in CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health. Read about how I helped investigate health concerns caused by a chemical leak in an Alabama neighborhood:

A lightning strike in 2008 caused a storage tank at a natural gas pumping station in Prichard, Alabama, to leak a chemical called mercaptan. Manufacturers add mercaptan, which smells like skunk, to natural gas to make it easier to find leaks if they occur.

In 2011, people in the Eight Mile community of Prichard complained about smelling foul odors. They also complained of nausea; dizziness; headaches; general weakness; respiratory problems; and irritation of their eyes, noses, and throats. Could the mercaptan be making residents sick three years later? Or was it another chemical?

After the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined there were high amounts of mercaptan in the air, the Alabama Department of Public Health then asked CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health to

  • document the self-reported health effects in the community
  • find out the number of people who reported symptoms and the types of medical services they received
  • make recommendations to prevent people from getting sick again from mercaptan and explain how to respond to any future incidents involving mercaptan.

We needed more help with investigating the health concerns reported by the residents, to be able to rapidly survey the community in a few days. We recruited a team of about 20 staff members from the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Mobile County Health Department along with University of Alabama student volunteers. We developed a rapid and relatively low-cost questionnaire and study design. Other health departments can use this response tool for future assessments of long-term health concerns in small communities that have had a mercaptan spill.

Behrooz Behbod addresses staff from Alabama state and local health departments. Photo courtesy Behrooz Behbod.
Behrooz Behbod addresses staff from Alabama state and local health departments. Photo courtesy Behrooz Behbod.

I was impressed by the incredible teamwork between the local, state, and federal partners. Because of the collaboration, within just one week in the field, we

  • trained field teams,
  • interviewed residents,
  • analyzed and interpret data, and
  • presented the results to the Mobile County Health Department.

Specifically, we found that residents living within one mile of the source of the odor were more likely to report severe odors, compared to residents living within one to two miles of the source. In addition, people living closer to the odor source reported exposures that made their physical and mental health worse. For example, some people had shortness of breath and eye irritations.

Based on our findings, together with the state and local health departments, we identified some areas that we believed would be helpful in preparation for potential future incidents:

  • Health departments should prepare public health communication messages in advance to include strategies to minimize exposures. Examples of strategies include limiting outdoor activity and keeping windows closed in the evening and overnight.
  • Advise persons with chronic respiratory and cardiovascular conditions to have their medications readily available.
  • Doctors should receive information on potential health effects of mercaptan exposures. They should also learn approaches to prevent and manage worsening of existing chronic diseases that may result from mercaptan exposures.

We hope you enjoy reading about our staff as they share experiences of being out in communities keeping you safe. Stay tuned for more stories like this on the NCEH/ATSDR “Your Health, Your Environment” blog.

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Page last reviewed: July 9, 2015
Page last updated: July 9, 2015