Federal and State Officials Misleading Public on Health Risks, Groups Say
NEW ORLEANS (December 1, 2005) -- New tests by the Natural Resources Defense Council and a Louisiana-based environmental chemist found dangerously high levels of industrial chemicals and heavy metals in the sediment covering much of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The tests also found alarming levels of long-banned pesticides that flood waters carried from an abandoned factory into a residential neighborhood.
The tests found arsenic levels in samples from neighborhoods across the entire city, for example, that exceeded Environmental Protection Agency safety limits -- in some places by a factor of 30 -- and samples taken in residential neighborhoods near two toxic waste sites found high levels of DDT and other banned pesticides, and cancer-causing petroleum chemicals.
The findings were made public today during a press briefing hosted by NRDC and the New Orleans-based Advocates for Environmental Human Rights (AEHR) in partnership with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, People's Hurricane Relief Fund, and Physicians for Social Responsibility. (Test results and maps showing test locations are available here.)
In a front page story in today's Times-Picayune, federal and state environmental officials played down the health risks posed by contaminated sediment and implied that it is unlikely they will clean it up ("All-clear close on sediment risk").
While the new independent test findings largely confirm earlier tests performed by the EPA, the groups charged that state and federal officials are misleading the public about their findings on toxic sediments and have done little to address the problem. The groups also pointed out that the EPA failed to retest 144 sites around the city that it previously found to be contaminated, according to the Times-Picayune story.
The groups called on federal and state agencies to clean up or remove the contaminated topsoil as required by law and fully inform the public about potential risks, as well as provide clear guidelines on how returning residents can protect themselves.
"We found arsenic or other cancer-causing contaminants in sediment all across the entire city," said Monique Hardin, AEHR's co-director. "We also found hot spots where there were some nasty surprises, such as banned pesticides. The government has a legal obligation to begin the cleanup immediately. People have a right to return to healthy homes and neighborhoods."
Wilma Subra, a Louisiana-based environmental chemist, collected sediment samples for NRDC at nine locations in New Orleans and one in Plaquemines Parish in mid-October. She also collected sediment on October 1 at two locations in New Orleans, as well as 17 other locations across the Gulf Coast. The samples were analyzed at Pace Analytical Services in Saint Rose, Louisiana. NRDC scientists compared the levels of contamination in the sediment with the levels that generally require the government to clean up soil in residential areas.
The new tests found pervasively high levels of arsenic, as well as high levels of other contaminants, including lead, banned pesticides, and cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) at three specific sites. The groups' findings on arsenic, lead and PAH were consistent with EPA data. The federal agency, however, did not conduct any tests at a key Mid-City location where NRDC testing revealed high levels of banned pesticides.
"Residents face a health risk because they can easily inhale contaminated sediment or get it on their skin when they are trying to clean it up," said Dr. Gina Solomon, M.D., who led the NRDC research team. If the contamination is not cleaned up, she added, residents could be faced with serious health risks, including cancer, neurological diseases, and hormonal and reproductive system problems, over the long term.
The arsenic levels in all of the samples require soil removal or cleanup to protect residents' health, according to the EPA's regional (Region 6) guidelines. The average level of arsenic NRDC found in Orleans Parish, for example, was more than 12 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) of soil -- more than 30 times higher than the level (0.39 mg/kg) requiring cleanup in residential areas to protect against cancer.
Many studies have determined that arsenic causes cancer of the bladder, skin and lungs; can damage the liver and kidneys; and is responsible for a variety of other serious ailments. The metal may be in New Orleans sediment because of historical use of arsenic-based pesticides, leakage from various industrial sites, or from wood treated with chromium-copper arsenate.
"Arsenic levels in the city's sediment are unacceptably high for residential neighborhoods," said Subra. "It's now loose on the ground where people can easily touch it, breathe it, or get it in their eyes and mouths."
The tests found high levels of several banned pesticides next to an abandoned pesticide blending facility near the Gert Town neighborhood of Mid-City. One of the samples, collected outside the fence line of some homes, revealed DDT, dieldrin and heptachlor epoxide. The DDT level was two times higher than the EPA level that calls for soil cleanup. The dieldrin level was nearly seven times higher than the EPA cleanup level.
The EPA did no sediment sampling around this facility, so the extent of the contamination is not yet known.
DDT, dieldrin and heptachlor epoxide are suspected human carcinogens, have been linked to neurological problems and hormonal system disruption, have been banned in the United States for more than 25 years, and are now banned worldwide by international treaty.
Petroleum Products: Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons & Diesel Fuel
The tests detected high levels of polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) at the Agricultural Street Landfill Superfund Site in New Orleans' Bywater neighborhood. PAHs are cancer-causing chemicals from soot and petroleum-based products. The landfill had visible leachate emerging from the site and spreading across the street and onto a local senior center's property. Sediment tests at this site found contamination as much as 20 times higher than the EPA soil cleanup standards for four PAHs.
NRDC's independent analysis of EPA testing data found widespread diesel fuel contamination at levels exceeding state DEQ soil clean-up guidelines in many parts of Orleans and St. Bernard parishes. Although its independent testing did not include diesel fuel, its analysis of the EPA data suggests a pervasive problem throughout the city.
Heavy Metals & Other Contaminants
The sediment testing also detected a variety of other contaminants in the soil samples, including such metals as lead, cadmium, chromium and mercury; various pesticides; and chemicals known as phthalates, which are used to soften plastics. The lead level in one sediment sample taken on Treme Street was more than twice the EPA regional office soil cleanup level. The EPA took a sediment sample in that same area and found similarly high lead levels.
Call for Action, Advice for Returning Residents
The groups urged the EPA to begin cleaning up or removing contaminated topsoil across the city. They also called on the agency to conduct further tests in the Gert Town neighborhood near the abandoned pesticide manufacturing facility that stored DDT and other long-banned pesticides to assess how far the pesticides migrated off site. EPA also should completely clean up the Gert Town site and the Agricultural Street Landfill Superfund site to ensure that these contaminant levels will be low enough for residents to safely return.
Experts say that residents returning to their flood-ravaged neighborhoods and homes should wear protective clothing, such as Tyvek suits or coveralls, boots or shoe-covers, vinyl or nitrile gloves, and respirators (such as N95 masks). This protective equipment can be purchased at most hardware and home-improvement stores and is fairly inexpensive. Unfortunately, many clean-up workers have not been supplied with this critical protective equipment, and many workers who do have the equipment have not been properly trained about its use, so they too often do not wear it.