News Brief: Bahamas Recovery, Vitamin E And Vaping, City Heat And Poverty

Originally published on September 6, 2019 10:14 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been difficult to report on the devastation caused by Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, in particular, the Abaco Islands, because journalists just couldn't get there to see what was going on firsthand. Now NPR's team is there.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah. And they're meeting residents of the island who are desperate to get out. Parts of Great Abaco Island are just not inhabitable. Neighborhoods are destroyed. There is no running water. There's no electricity. And food is also running out quickly.

MARTIN: NPR's Jason Beaubien is leading our reporting team on the Abaco Islands. Jason, good morning. Can you just start by telling us what you are hearing? What are the stories people are conveying to you?

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Yeah. I mean, people are just talking about this storm as being a historical storm. You know, the prime minister referred to it that way. You start getting into people who've been - who were inside Marsh Harbor when this storm was hitting it as, you know, a Category 5 storm that pounded into Marsh Harbor.

I talked to this one woman, Regina Perotti Kennedy (ph), and she's saying the sound was just unbelievable.

REGINA PEROTTI KENNEDY: It wasn't pounding. It was howling, like demons from hell. I have nothing else to compare it to. My ears hurt so bad. I still can't hear properly out of one. It was unbelievable.

BEAUBIEN: And, you know, we're just hearing that over and over again, it was just unbelievably powerful.

MARTIN: I mean, it's just - it's phenomenal that people survived, right? I mean, we've heard...

BEAUBIEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...All these reports of body bags being sent there to collect the dead.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: You've been reporting from this airstrip, where people are just trying to leave, right, lining up to get out? What are you seeing there?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. So at the very end of the island, there's this little airstrip. And we flew into there. And you get in, and there's all of these people lined up by the side of the airstrip. They've got bags. They've got their kids with them. They're sort of clutching at their kids. And, you know, the first image - you know, the first thing that you think of is refugees. These are people who are seeking refuge. They're fleeing. They're trying to get out. And these little planes are coming in, you know, private - people are coming in and plucking them out into these little planes, trying just to - and they're flying them anywhere, anywhere they can get off the island.

You know, there's this one woman that I met there. Her name's Sharona Tien Cole (ph). Yeah. And she was just - just didn't know what it was going to do and just trying to get on a plane.

SHARONA TIEN COLE: This island is - we can't stay here. There's a lot of contamination in the water. A lot of dead bodies and sewage. And the electrical company is wiped out. The banks are gone. It's no use staying here.

BEAUBIEN: When do you think you might be able to come back?

COLE: I wasn't really going to try. Just live in (unintelligible).

BEAUBIEN: You know?

MARTIN: Wow.

BEAUBIEN: And she was not alone. I mean, a lot of people were just saying, just getting out and, yeah, going to start a new life somewhere else.

MARTIN: And how are they getting on these planes? I mean, how many people are waiting for how many seats on the planes?

BEAUBIEN: So there were probably about 300 - maybe a little bit more - people at the airport at that point. Many people had already gotten out. As we were coming up out of the airport later, there were more people going down to try to get to that airstrip. And basically, this is one of the only ways off the island right now because boats aren't getting in. The docks have been destroyed. The main airport is completely shut. So people are desperate, and this is one of the only ways to get off right now.

MARTIN: Right. We could hear the sounds of children in the background there in that tape. So clearly, people want to get to a place where they have food and water for the kids. What's the - what does the government response look like right now?

BEAUBIEN: So the government is trying to gear up to deal with it, not just here, but also on Grand Bahama. You know, that was also hit incredibly hard. We're talking about, you know, tens of thousands of people over there. It's a little bit smaller on Abaco, in terms of the population. But they're trying to get things going. U.N. aid agencies are coming in. You've got the big charities are coming in.

But at the moment, they're really in a difficult position because the logistics of getting to these people are so difficult. And that's the big challenge right now - trying to get in, figure out what their response is going to be, and reach these people.

MARTIN: NPR's Jason Beaubien in the Abaco Islands. Thank you so much, Jason.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

MARTIN: And we should just note, Hurricane Dorian has now been downgraded to a Category 1 storm as it is moving north up the Eastern Seaboard. The barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, called the Outer Banks, are being hit hard right now by hurricane-force sustained winds.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. There has been a mystery plaguing public health officials across the country in recent weeks. Why are hundreds of people vaping and then getting seriously ill?

KING: Yeah. Across the country, there have been more than 200 reported cases of people getting these mysterious lung illnesses and ending up in the hospital after they use e-cigarettes. So now health officials in New York state, who have been looking into this, say they have a new focus in their investigation.

MARTIN: What is it? Let's ask NPR's Allison Aubrey. She's in the studio. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What have investigators learned?

AUBREY: Well, among the people who've gotten sick, some of them have actually handed over the vaping cartridges that they used. And investigators in New York have analyzed these in a lab. What they found are very high levels of vitamin E in the products that also contain THC or cannabis. Now, you may be thinking, vitamin E, that doesn't sound bad, right...

MARTIN: That doesn't sound bad.

AUBREY: It's OK as a dietary supplement or a cream...

MARTIN: Yeah.

AUBREY: ...But when it is inhaled deep in the lung, especially in high concentrations, it can be harmful. That's what the health commissioner in New York, Howard Zucker, told me in an interview. Now, I should point out that the investigators have found no evidence of vitamin E in the samples of nicotine cartridges that people handed over.

MARTIN: So this is something specific to vaping? I mean, where's the vitamin E coming from?

AUBREY: Well, in New York, vitamin E is not an approved additive in medical marijuana or authorized vape products. And the health commissioner says these products are not coming from approved dispensaries in the state. So they appear to be black market cartridges purchased off the street. It's not clear why people are adding vitamin E to these cartridges. But basically, people are buying THC cartridges to vape and ending up with these very high amounts of vitamin E.

MARTIN: So as Noel said, there are more than 200 reported cases of these lung illnesses spanning 25 states...

AUBREY: Yup.

MARTIN: ...People are getting so sick. And now there are reports of at least two fatalities?

AUBREY: Yes. There have been two deaths linked to the vaping illnesses. In late August, the state of Illinois reported that one adult died after being hospitalized. And then this week, the Oregon Health Authority announced it's investigating the recent death of an adult who had these severe symptoms following e-cigarette use. That person also used a cannabis product and had symptoms that are really consistent with all these other cases.

MARTIN: So what's the FDA saying right now?

AUBREY: Well, the agency does not seem so convinced that vitamin E can explain this whole thing. Officials at the FDA say no one substance, including vitamin E, has been identified in all of the samples that are tested around the country. We expect to hear more from them today. They say they need more information to understand if any specific product or any one substance is linked to all of the illnesses.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. So now to a fact that, by now, we all know well, right? The world is getting hotter. The last five years have been the hottest ever recorded.

KING: And here is a troubling part of that troubling pattern. In dozens of U.S. cities, low-income neighborhoods tend to be hotter than wealthier neighborhoods. That's the finding of a joint investigation by NPR and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland.

MARTIN: Meg Anderson from our investigations team joins us now. She's been looking into this. Hi, Meg.

MEG ANDERSON, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: So poorer areas in American cities are often hotter. What are we talking about? How much hotter?

ANDERSON: So potentially, a lot hotter. We started this reporting by looking at one city, Baltimore. And the difference between neighborhoods there was as much as 10 degrees. And where it was hottest, it was often poorest. So we wanted to see if that was happening elsewhere in the country.

We looked at 97 of the biggest U.S. cities. And basically, we took two datasets, heat and income, and we put them on top of each other on a map of each city. And we found that this is a nationwide trend. Baltimore isn't even an extreme case. Nearly 70 of the cities have an even stronger connection between higher income and - or, excuse me, lower income and hotter temperatures.

MARTIN: Right. So before we get to the why of it, what effect does that have on the people who live there?

ANDERSON: Yeah. So heat can make you really sick. Not just extreme things, like heatstroke, but it can make some preexisting conditions even worse. And we found that that's likely already happening. Last summer, EMS calls in Baltimore went up dramatically when it was dangerously hot for things like heatstroke, but also for respiratory conditions and cardiac arrest. And I want to stress that poverty is really important here. It can make you more vulnerable to a lot of different health conditions. And it can make it harder to escape the heat.

MARTIN: Yeah.

ANDERSON: So things like air conditioning cost money. I spoke with Dr. Georges Benjamin. He's the executive director of the American Public Health Association. And he broke this down really well.

GEORGES BENJAMIN: Your ability to recover is directly related to resources. So if you are of an ethnicity or economic class that has less resources, you're not going to do as well. You're not going to be able to recover as well, or you may not be able to protect yourself as well.

ANDERSON: So it's like a triple threat. Not only are these neighborhoods actually hotter, people living in them are less likely to be able to protect themselves. And they're more likely to have health problems in the first place.

MARTIN: So any - why? I mean, any idea why these areas are hotter?

ANDERSON: Yeah. So cities in general are hotter - that's called the urban heat island - compared to their rural surroundings. And the reason behind that are pretty intuitive. There's less greenery and trees in cities. There's more concrete. There's more cars, which release heat. And once you start to think about cities that you're familiar with, it tends to make sense that lower-income areas have more of those elements. They have even fewer trees. They have even more concrete.

MARTIN: More congestion in general.

ANDERSON: Yeah. Exactly. And environmental experts I spoke to said that's not a coincidence. Often, a lot of these neighborhoods were shaped by disinvestment and segregation and discriminatory housing policies. And with climate change, these neighborhoods are likely just going to get hotter.

MARTIN: Is there any response? I mean, are people in government, are they thinking about this problem and how to solve it?

ANDERSON: Yeah. We spoke to several different cities, and it's on the minds of a lot of city officials. And one of the biggest things you can do is plant trees.

MARTIN: NPR's Meg Anderson for us. Really interesting story. For more on it, you can check out the heat and income maps of 97 cities. You can check it out online at npr.org/cityheat. Meg, thanks. We appreciate it.

ANDERSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "MULLED WINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.