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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris in New Orleans. The sediment that covered much of New Orleans after the floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina still blanket some neighborhoods. State and federal officials have assured residents that it doesn't present a risk to people coming in to clean up. But some residents and scientists worry that contaminants in the sediment could pose long-term health risks for people who move back in, especially children. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren was in New Orleans to look into their concerns.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

In New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, Pam Dashiell walks through a wasteland of collapsed houses and uprooted trees. She points to the crusty dark soil that covers most surfaces.

Ms. PAM DASHIELL: (Lower Ninth Ward Activist): That is sediment that came from the contaminated industrial canal.

SHOGREN: Dashiell is a long-time resident and community activist here.

Ms. DASHIELL: The sediments in the industrial canal were absolutely contaminated. Our neighborhood association had a study done that found all kinds of toxic sediments, heavy metals, arsenic lead and post-Katrina, all those same chemicals were found in the soil.

SHOGREN: She says it's making it even harder for people to rebuild.

Ms. DASHIELL: You know, we you know, we want our children back. And children playing in an area that has toxic sediment, where the wind blows, etcetera, is not a scenario that any of us would like to see. We want a safe sanitary community.

SHOGREN: She wants the government to pay to remove that sediment and bring in clean dirt before rebuilding starts.

Tom Harris of the Louisiana State Department of Environmental Quality says the state and federal government have taken hundreds of soil samples. They show that in most places, it's safe for people to return.

Mr. TOM HARRIS (Louisiana State Department of Environmental Quality): We are seeing overwhelmingly sediment and soil concentrations that are below residential standards for long-term exposure. It's not as bad as was first reported, or we feared at first.

SHOGREN: He concedes that in the Lower Ninth Ward and some of the city's older neighborhoods, lead and arsenic were found at levels that exceed public health standards. However, he says, Katrina can't be blamed for that.

Mr. HARRIS: What we're seeing in samples in some of these older neighborhoods are pretty typical and consistent with what was found before Katrina and what's found in urban neighborhoods throughout the United States.

SHOGREN: It may be that Dashiell and Harris are both at least partly right. New Orleans has a serious problem of soil contamination that predates Katrina, but flooding from Katrina may have spread it around or made it worse.

Howard Mielke, a professor at New Orleans Xavier University, has studied lead for decades. He created a map that shows the parts of New Orleans inner city that have high lead levels such as Central City. He takes us to the area with the worse lead contamination before Katrina, the Upper Ninth Ward.

Mr. HOWARD MIELKE (Professor, New Orleans Xavier University): We're in an old neighborhood. They have all of the combination of things that could cause a problem. High traffic flows on nearby streets during the period of time we were using lead in gasoline. That would have generated a lot of lead coming into the city.

SHOGREN: And old houses covered with lead-based paint. People usually sand these houses before repainting them adding enormous amounts of lead to nearby soil.

Mielke says lead in the soil is a big reason that before Katrina, a quarter of the children in the inner city of New Orleans had blood lead levels high enough to cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

Before the storm, Mielke was working with local families whose children suffer from lead poisoning. Several months after Katrina, he went back to check on them.

Mr. MIELKE: Oh, hey, Ms. Bettina.

Ms. BETTINA REUTTER (Local resident): Oh, hello.

SHOGREN: Bettina Reutter's son, Ky, had tested positive for serious lead poisoning a year and a half ago when he was 2. The Environmental Protection Agency says anything above 400 parts-per-million lead in soil is unsafe for children. Other countries set that level at 100 parts-per-million. But Mielke says it was much higher than that in Ky's backyard.

Mr. MIELKE: This play area was where he was playing and when we took samples, we found out that this yard, the median was well above 1,000. The maximum was actually at 20,000 parts-per-million lead. It was very contaminated.

SHOGREN: Mielke organized volunteers to spread truckloads of clean soil around Ky's yard.

Mr. MIELKE: I knew immediately that at least we could make a difference for Ky's life by changing the soil, because the child was playing in a hazardous waste material, basically.

SHOGREN: After several months, Ky's blood lead level returned to normal. Reutter says she saw the difference in her toddler's behavior.

Ms. REUTTER: Yeah, I thought he calmed down a little. Like, just what they say on lead, because you're always, when he has a fuss, they're, like, oh, that's the lead, you know. So I think he, he did get somewhat like more being able to sit down and concentrate. Might be the age, too. Right? It's hard to tell in that sense.

SHOGREN: Then came Katrina. After Bettina Reutter returned to New Orleans, her 2-year-old daughter Analia tested high for lead. Mielke retested the soil in the backyard and found that the clean soil was covered with a very thin layer of more contaminated soil. His theory is that floodwaters brought in contaminated soil, or winds blew it in during the long drought that followed the storm. Reutter says wherever the contamination was, Analia found it quickly.

Ms. REUTTER: She's sucking on her fingers. So anything she touches when she puts it in her mouth. So, it might not even be here because there's a park open where I go to, that, you know, there might be lead from there. It might be just lead from the street.

SHOGREN: Reutter says until the whole city is cleaned up, children like hers will be vulnerable to lead poisoning.

Ms. REUTTER: Yeah, I mean, there's no surprise that there's lead again. Right? Because you have to clean up the whole city.

SHOGREN: Mielke says it's possible that state officials are right, and lead levels are not much worse than they were before Katrina. But even before Katrina, the soil contamination problem was so dangerous for children that it required urgent action.

Mr. MIELKE: And to turn that around as well, it's not a problem because this is the way it was before. Well, what it was before was a very serious problem.

SHOGREN: Experts from the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council analyzed the government's sediment data. They believe the flooding increased the risks from lead, arsenic and other contaminates.

Steve Presley, an environmental toxicologist from Texas Tech University, has done his own sampling since Katrina. He found levels of lead and arsenic in some parts of New Orleans that are several times higher than what the federal government says is safe. He says it shouldn't matter whether the toxins were present in the soil before Katrina.

Mr. STEVE PRESLEY (Environmental Toxicologist, Texas Tech University): If we as a nation are going to rebuild a city that was a vital part of our natural culture, I guess, let's make sure it's safe for people to return to that area. And let's do it right.

SHOGREN: The answer, Howard Mielke says, is to spread clean soil over yards, parks and vacant lots across the city. He hopes the massive rebuilding effort underway will provide an opportunity to make New Orleans a safer place for children than it was before the storm. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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