Groups Say Federal Officials Failing to Monitor, Warn Citizens of Serious Health Risk

NEW ORLEANS (November 16, 2005) -- New air tests taken by a non-profit environmental organization show that airborne mold levels in New Orleans pose a serious health risk to residents and workers returning to the devastated city. The tests confirm concerns that federal officials are neglecting a major safety threat affecting thousands of people both indoors and out, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, which administered the monitoring.

The findings are the first publicly available air quality tests in the city since Hurricane Katrina. They were released in New Orleans today by NRDC and a coalition of local organizations, including Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, Louisiana Environmental Action Network and Holy Cross Neighborhood Association.

NRDC collected air samples for mold spore analysis in 14 locations across the New Orleans area Oct. 17-19. Nine of the locations had been significantly flooded. The levels of mold spores in the air were extremely high both inside homes, and outside, especially in the areas that flooded.

"The outdoor mold spore concentrations could easily trigger serious allergic or asthmatic reactions in sensitive people," said Dr. Gina Solomon, M.D., who led the NRDC research team. "The indoor air quality was even worse, rendering the homes we tested dangerously uninhabitable by any definition."

Federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are not monitoring mold levels in flooded areas, and have not helped residents cope with the mold problem. While there are no U.S. regulatory standards for either indoor or outdoor levels of mold spores, it is the government's responsibility to ensure the public is protected from the dangerous health risks, according to NRDC.

The National Allergy Bureau of the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology considers any outdoor mold spore level of greater than 50,000 spores per cubic meter to be "very high." The spore counts outdoors in most flooded neighborhoods tested by NRDC -- including New Orleans East, the Lower 9th Ward, Chalmette, Uptown, Mid-City and the Garden District -- topped out at 77,000 spores per cubic meter at one site in Chalmette, and 81,000 spores per cubic meter at another site in Uptown.

The indoor site in Uptown had a spore count of 645,000 spores per cubic meter, and the indoor site in Lakeview had 638,000 spores per cubic meter. By comparison, the bureau considers outdoor mold counts of 1 to 6,499 "low," 6,500 to 12,999 "moderate," and 13,000 to 49,999 "high."

Federal Government Remains on the Sidelines

"The federal government is falling down on the job by not addressing the public health impacts from mold," said Monique Hardin of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights. "Federal officials can and should be telling people whether it's safe to return to their homes. They can and should provide respirators and protective equipment to returning residents and workers. They can even bar people from re-entering dangerous areas or order clean-ups."

"I came back to my neighborhood and found mold growing all over the walls of my house and my neighbors' homes," said Pam Dashiell, president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association in the Lower 9th Ward. "But there was no information provided by FEMA, EPA, or anyone else about whether it was safe and what I should do to protect myself. I didn't know I needed to be wearing a respirator, or even where to go get one."

Mold growing on damp surfaces releases spores that can be inhaled. Some molds also produce chemicals known at mycotoxins that may be toxic to humans. Mold can cause congestion, sneezing, runny or itchy nose, and throat irritation; more serious symptoms include major allergic attacks, cough, asthma attacks, and hypersensitivity pneumonitis (a pneumonia-like illness with difficulty breathing and fevers). Some studies have shown that outdoor levels of mold spores are directly associated with childhood asthma attacks.

Call for Action, Advice for Citizens

The groups urged the federal government to take immediate action to protect people living and working in New Orleans from the health effects of mold. They say officials need to provide clear, consistent information about appropriate precautions, and on how to eliminate mold in homes and other structures. They say federal officials should also offer personal protective equipment such as respirators, and mold remediation assistance, especially to low-income and other disenfranchised communities that otherwise couldn't afford to rebuild.

Experts say that anyone doing clean-up or debris removal in a moldy environment should wear nitrile gloves, a respirator (such as an N95 mask), safety glasses and a Tyvek suit over clothing. Decreasing indoor moisture is the most critical factor for controlling mold growth. Windows and doors should be opened for ventilation, and fans can be used to provide additional air flow.

All non-cleanable items that have been wet for more than two days or that have visible mold should be thrown away. Non-cleanable items include mattresses, carpeting and carpet padding, rugs, stuffed animals, upholstery, wallpaper, drywall, floor and ceiling tiles, insulation material, clothing, leather, paper, soft plastics, and wood. Mold-covered drywall is definitely not salvageable, and many structures may need to be stripped to the studs.

More information about the NRDC test results, health risks from mold and mold remediation is available here.