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Health Threats Linger in New Orleans
Returning residents encounter toxic dust on their streets and in their homes.

Photo of a New Orleans communityAs 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

Sonar: A Lethal Weapon

Sonar blasts can disorient, injure, even kill marine mammals that depend on a highly developed sense of hearing to avoid predators, find food, migrate, and locate mates -- everything they need to survive. Whales and porpoises exposed to high-intensity sonar have been found bleeding from the eyes and ears, with lesions the size of golf balls in their sensory organs. Yet the U.S. Navy continues to use powerful sonar blasts in routine testing and training operations without taking even simple precautions, such as increasing the sonar volume gradually (to give nearby animals a chance to flee) or listening for the presence of marine mammals before proceeding. Joel Reynolds, an NRDC senior attorney who has filed three lawsuits over sonar's harm to marine life, initiated his latest case last October, arguing that the Navy's use of mid-frequency sonar violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Endangered Species Act. In an effort to convey just how disruptive military sonar can be to marine mammals, NRDC created Lethal Sound, a short film narrated by Pierce Brosnan that audibly conveys its deadly impact. Watch it online or order the DVD by calling Erin Kiley at 310-434-2304.
-- Erin Kiley

Inside NRDC
The View from NRDC

Photo of a polar bear

Polar Bears on Thin Ice

Polar bears may soon be the first mammal listed as a threatened species as a direct result of global warming. The bears rely on sea ice to locate prey, migrate to mating grounds, and raise their young, but as the Arctic ice vanishes, the bears' chances for survival are rapidly diminishing. To protect the species from extinction, NRDC and other environmental groups petitioned the Secretary of the Interior to have the polar bear listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The request was ignored, so in December the groups filed suit against the federal government. As a result, last month the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to study whether the polar bear should be given endangered species protection. The agency is expected to announce its decision within a year. If polar bears are listed, the Endangered Species Act will prohibit federal agencies from taking any action that adversely changes the bears' critical habitat or otherwise undermines their ability to recover -- such as allowing the emission of greenhouse gases. The implications for future government policy could potentially be huge and a great boon to the wildlife threatened by the Arctic's climatic deterioration.
-- Lisa Whiteman

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Photos: left, Ed Kashi; right, courtesy Thomas. D. Mangelsen/Images of Nature Stock

OnEarth. Spring 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council