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Air Quality

As the flood waters recede, the air quality problems are becoming much more severe. The streets of New Orleans have a distinctive odor of rotting material, fuel oil and mold. Inside houses we saw jumbles of furniture dropped by the flood and covered by a thick wet layer of blackish sediment. The walls, floors, ceilings and furniture inside homes are already covered in mold, and the smell of it is overwhelming. Damp indoor environments and mold cause respiratory problems in children, asthmatics and those with allergies.

The EPA's air monitoring shows increasing concentrations of fine particles in the air, with a sharp spike on September 19 and no data available after that time. Monitoring for gasoline chemicals in the air demonstrated levels of the cancer-causing and neurotoxic chemical benzene up to 40 times higher than the level considered acceptable by the Centers for Disease Control for a two-week long exposure.

Outdoors, the sediment is drying and cracking. The EPA tests on this sediment revealed elevated levels of several toxic metals such as arsenic, lead and hexavalent chromium at several locations. Tests also showed elevated levels of cancer-causing chemicals from soot, and fuel oil contaminants. This combination of chemicals is likely ending up in the air, where it can pose a significant risk to people breathing it in. We saw workers sweeping the sediment into piles, raising clouds of dust. Workers were operating street sweepers without the benefit of respiratory protection. -- AH

Photos all pages: Erik Olson and Gina Solomon



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