Experts from the Natural Resources Defense Council are in Louisiana this week to establish a program of independent toxicity testing, meet with community groups and scientists, and talk with local, state and federal officials. Their goal is to ensure that residents returning to the city are adequately informed of the dangers posed by the "toxic chaos" in many New Orleans neighborhoods.

On Monday, the delegation toured some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in the city and documented numerous toxic hazards. The NRDC experts also reviewed all EPA environmental sampling results and concluded that there are potentially serious hazards related to air and water pollution. In addition, the contaminated sludge left behind by the flooding will become airborne as it dries out, leading to new air pollution problems. Mold is also a spreading and serious problem in buildings and even in outdoor air.

"The citizens of New Orleans and other hard-hit Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama communities need to know how to protect themselves from these harmful chemicals so they can rebuild their lives and stay healthy," said Erik Olson, an NRDC senior attorney. "It is critical not to understate the threat posed by Katrina's toxic mess."

Olson is in New Orleans today through Wednesday, accompanied by Dr. Gina Solomon, an NRDC physician and senior scientist; Albert Huang, an NRDC environmental justice attorney; and Patrice Simms, an NRDC senior attorney. The group is working with local community and environmental groups, environmental justice activists, and local scientists to establish an independent toxicity testing program that will conduct scientific tests to evaluate the safety of many communities hit by the hurricanes.

Last week, Olson told the House Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials that the EPA has been using an inappropriate comparison for determining the safety of toxic exposures in New Orleans.

Instead of using a more realistic two-week exposure duration to calculate the threat posed by such toxins as benzene and xylene, Dr. Solomon explained, the agency is using a much less realistic 24-hour exposure comparison, which understates the danger. According to EPA's own monitoring data, many returning residents are being exposed to benzene -- a known carcinogen and nerve toxin -- at levels significantly over the federal government's safety level for two-week exposure. In places near oil refineries, the agency found benzene levels higher than 40 times this safety level.

For Olson's written testimony, click here.

Given the EPA's failure to properly inform returning residents, many are being exposed to toxic water, air, and sludge without protective clothing, respirators, or even simple face masks. Even emergency workers and local police have been going without protective clothing, which is required by EPA and Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations for toxic and oil cleanup efforts.

"People are getting sick today from the contamination in New Orleans," said Dr. Gina Solomon. "Worse still, this city is a time-bomb for future risks of asthma, respiratory disease, and even cancer from the pollution in the city."