Government's Own Tests Confirm Widespread Hazard, Urgent Cleanup Needed

WASHINGTON (February 23, 2006) -- State and federal officials responsible for protecting returning New Orleans residents are continuing to provide misleading and dangerous assurances about the major health risks posed by widespread toxic contamination left by receding flood waters, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

A new analysis by NRDC of the Environmental Protection Agency's neighborhood-by-neighborhood contaminant readings found high levels of arsenic, lead, and dangerous petroleum compounds across the city at levels that should have triggered a mandatory cleanup or additional investigation. (The report, test results and maps are available here.)

The findings stand in stark contrast to assurances by the EPA and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) that contamination levels in the city pose no "unacceptable" health risks.

"It is stunning that the state's environmental agency can look at these results and say there's no problem," said Dr. Gina Solomon, the NRDC senior scientist who oversaw the analysis. "More than a third of the EPA samples in New Orleans had arsenic levels that exceed the Louisiana threshold level requiring an investigation or cleanup. Federal and state agencies have to clean up this toxic mess to ensure returning residents are safe."

In January NRDC sent a letter requesting LDEQ to document the state's assertions that there are no unacceptable health threats. LDEQ responded on February 2 that it is continuing to assess the problem, but it failed to provide the details of its analysis and made no commitment to clean up. (Download NRDC's letter to LDEQ; download the agency's response.)

Long-term exposure to the worst contaminants left behind by the flood can cause significant health problems. Arsenic causes bladder, skin and lung cancer; can damage the liver and kidneys; and is responsible for a variety of other serious ailments. The substance may be in New Orleans sediment because of historical use of arsenic-based pesticides, leaks from various industrial sites, or from wood treated with chromium-copper arsenate.

Lead interferes with normal brain development in infants and children, and is linked to such chronic health effects as kidney disease and hypertension. Diesel fuel can cause skin irritation even after brief contact. Diesel-contaminated dust and vapors can damage kidneys, increase blood pressure, and decrease the ability of blood to clot. Another petroleum byproduct found in the contamination blanketing the city, benzo(a)pyrene, can cause chromosome damage, cancer, immune suppression, and risks to normal fetal development.

"The state and the feds are failing to meet their obligation to protect the people of New Orleans, plain and simple," said Pam Dashiell, head of the Holy Cross Community Association in the city's Lower Ninth Ward. "As we speak, schools are reopening, and families are returning to the city, struggling to put their lives back together. Public officials need to tell the truth about the contamination, and start an investigation and cleanup immediately."

The new data analysis covers several hundred samples taken by EPA between September 15, 2005, and January 15, 2006, and mapped by the Greater New Orleans Data Center. NRDC scientists analyzed the results and found numerous serious health threats, including:

  • Thirty-seven percent of more than 200 samples taken in Orleans Parish exceed the Louisiana state cleanup level for soil in residential neighborhoods. In some neighborhoods, including Lakeview, Bywater and New Orleans East, more than half of the samples exceed LDEQ's cleanup and investigation level.

  • There are seven locations in residential neighborhoods of Mid-City, Gentilly, Lakeview and New Orleans East where arsenic levels are more than 100 times higher than the EPA soil safety guideline and as much as 6.5 times higher than the Louisiana cleanup and investigation level.

  • In some neighborhoods, including Central City/Garden District, Uptown/Carrollton, and Mid-City, at least a quarter of the samples exceed the state's historically weak cleanup and investigation threshold. More than half of the samples collected in several neighborhoods -- and more than 25 percent of the samples collected across the New Orleans area -- likely meet the EPA's definition of a hazardous waste.

  • NRDC's analysis identified "hot spots" of lead contamination at levels as much as three times higher than the Louisiana soil cleanup and investigation level in Gentilly, Bywater, Mid-City and the Lower Ninth Ward.

  • As much as 91 percent of the EPA samples tested for diesel fuel ingredients -- called diesel-range organics -- in Orleans Parish were sufficiently contaminated to require investigation or cleanup under Louisiana regulations. In fact, every EPA sample from the districts of Uptown/Carrollton and Central City/Garden exceeds the state cleanup and investigation standard for diesel contamination, as do more than 90 percent of the samples from Mid-City, Gentilly, Bywater, New Orleans East, and Arabi in St. Bernard Parish.

  • NRDC also identified eight hot spots where levels of diesel-range organics are more than 100 times higher than the LDEQ soil cleanup and investigation standard for residential neighborhoods. These hot spots are located in Bywater, Lakeview, Central City/Garden District, and Mid-City, as well as in Chalmette, St. Bernard Parish.

  • The analysis also found high levels of benzo(a)pyrene, one of the most toxic compounds in soot and petroleum products. For example, benzo(a)pyrene levels exceed Louisiana cleanup and investigation standards in 57 percent of the samples in Orleans Parish.

  • In general, the neighborhoods with high levels of diesel fuel contamination also have higher levels of benzo(a)pyrene contamination. However, in New Orleans' Bywater neighborhood, where the Agricultural Street Landfill Superfund Site is located, the average level of this contaminant is more than 18 times higher than the applicable LDEQ cleanup and investigation standard, while the peak level is more than 50 times higher than the state soil cleanup level.