EPA Finds High Toxicity in New Orleans Waters

The Environmental Protection Agency says the floodwaters in New Orleans are full of sewage and dangerous bacteria. Initial testing has revealed not only bacteria but lead and other toxic elements.

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The Environmental Protection Agency says the floodwaters in New Orleans are full of sewage and bacteria that can make people sick. Federal officials joined local agencies in urging all residents to evacuate to avoid exposure to the water. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

EPA Administrator Steve Johnson says that initial testing by his agency shows that levels of harmful bacteria in the floodwaters are so high that they were off EPA's chart.

Mr. STEVE JOHNSON (EPA): From our standpoint, it's a major health concern; it's the maximum of the tests that we performed. And that's not good and that's why you need to avoid contact as much as possible with the water.

SHOGREN: Johnson says the tests also show high levels of lead in the water. He's not sure where the lead comes from.

Mr. JOHNSON: Now this may seem obvious to all of you, but no one should drink the floodwater, especially children.

SHOGREN: The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Julie Louise Gerberding, says there have been sporadic outbreaks of intestinal illnesses, and at least three people have died from a bacterial infection called vibrio vulnificus. That's commonly associated with exposure to saltwater.

Dr. JULIE LOUISE GERBERDING (Centers for Disease Control and prevention): We believe that the health hazard from this water is still a very important threat to the people who have yet to evacuate. Now basically the results from the EPA indicate that the water is full of sewage. We know this is not safe. We know that there are many common intestinal illnesses that can be transmitted by ingesting this sewage and in some cases by being in the water with these organisms in it without protective clothing. So for the evacuees who haven't left the city yet, you must do so.

SHOGREN: She says that residents and emergency personnel should take precautions if they need to come into contact with the water.

Dr. GERBERDING: They include wearing things like reinforced boots, so that you don't get injured while you're moving through the water, appropriate gloves so the hands aren't injured, facial protection so that you're not splashing things into your face, and some other measures for specific situations.

SHOGREN: Rodney Mallett from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality says that there are a lot of other contaminants in the water besides sewage. That includes petrochemicals from oil spills small and large.

Mr. RODNEY MALLETT (Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality): Essentially, oil spills in the true sense of the word--they are everywhere in New Orleans because any car that's underwater, lawn mower, boat, truck--everything that is underwater that has oil in it is now leaking oil.

SHOGREN: The state also has located two large oil spills, one at a refinery and another at a production facility south of New Orleans.

(Soundbite of water flowing)

SHOGREN: Right now the water with all the contaminants in it is being pumped into Lake Pontchartrain. Mallett says there's no question that the floodwaters will pollute the lake.

Mr. MALLETT: We don't think there are any other options. I mean, we can't treat the water and then pump it out. We've got people down there who need to be rescued. That's all there is to it. We gotta get down there and pump that water out, and listen, if you didn't pump the water out, you'd have a much worse problem if you let it sit there and fester while you tried to treat each little bit before you send it out.

SHOGREN: Mallett says the state hopes that over time Lake Pontchartrain, which is very large, will be able to heal itself.

Scientists say the bacteria from the sewage presents the biggest challenge now, but in the coming months as the waters recede, the contaminated sludge left behind in the city will represent a bigger environmental challenge. Tom La Point is an aquatic toxicologist from the University of North Texas.

Mr. TOM LA POINT (University of North Texas): In the near term, there will be some fish kills, but I think in the longer term, the issue will not be the biological components that went into Pontchartrain; I think it'll be the petrochemical compounds that are still left back in the sludge in the city.

SHOGREN: Officials and scientists concede that they still have only a partial picture of the contamination in the floodwaters. They expect to learn more as they do much more water testing in the coming weeks. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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