As fallen trees, crumbled houses, and abandoned cars are cleared from the streets of New Orleans, a less obvious public health disaster looms. In many storm-ravaged communities, from Mid-City to the Lower Ninth Ward and beyond, sediment churned up by Katrina's floodwaters is still caked on front stoops, backyards, and playgrounds. What had been goopy muck is dry now, but it is still laced with toxic substances such as arsenic and diesel fuel, both of which can cause cancer and neurological disease.
Although these ailments are unlikely to show up for many years, New Orleans residents face more immediate threats. Waterlogged sofas and tattered belongings serve as giant petri dishes for mold to breed unfettered; airborne spores linger in concentrations so great that entire neighborhoods effuse a pungent, musty stench. Local doctors have reported that many residents are coming in with persistent respiratory complaints, itchy eyes, and sinus infections -- symptoms, triggered by mold, of what is now being called the Katrina cough.
Last fall, separate sets of tests done by the Environmental Protection Agency and NRDC revealed the sediment contamination. "We found some nasty surprises, like residues of pesticides that have been outlawed for decades," says Gina Solomon, a medical doctor and NRDC scientist who oversaw the organization's air and sediment testing. "This needs to be cleaned up immediately."
So far, no such action has been taken, nor any decision made as to whether there will ever be a coordinated government effort to rid neighborhoods of the dried-up sludge. The EPA has set soil-cleanup guidelines based on studies of arsenic toxicity but has deferred to Louisiana, which has its own set of guidelines that are far more lenient. NRDC and EPA studies reveal that there are places in the city where the concentration of arsenic is higher than the safe exposure levels set by both state and federal agencies. Officials say they will continue to look into the problem but have also declared that it's safe for residents to return.
"We don't know how they're coming to that conclusion," says Patrice Simms, an NRDC attorney, who notes that assessments for arsenic typically are done using samples taken from soil beneath the surface. "In this case, the contamination is on top of the ground. It's dust in people's homes. It will get kicked up into the air and inhaled while people are cleaning and children are playing. That means far greater exposure than from ordinary arsenic-laced soil, but we don't think the EPA is taking that into account."
"Government agencies are telling them, 'It's okay, move back,'" Solomon says. "We're saying, 'These risks need to be handled safely.' "
In the absence of government action, NRDC is working to ensure that residents have the resources they need to protect themselves from contaminated sediment and mold when they confront the task of cleaning up their homes. The results of its testing are posted on the web. Local public health advocates are disseminating the data at information booths in the neighborhoods where contamination is most severe. The tables are staffed by volunteers who explain safe cleanup procedures and distribute face masks to prevent homeowners from inhaling mold and toxic dust, as well as Tyvek suits to keep the diesel-fuel-laced sediment from contacting clothing and skin, which could trigger rashes.
NRDC is also using its national clout to help local groups force federal and state officials to confront the issue of the city's toxic residue. NRDC legal experts, meanwhile, are watching closely to make sure that this quiet threat will be adequately addressed, according to the letter of the law.
-- Laura Wright