New Orleans Floodwaters Loaded With Sewage

Forced evacuation of residents begins

THURSDAY, Sept. 8, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- The first federal testing of floodwaters in New Orleans has revealed dangerously high levels of sewage, with 10 times the safe levels of E. coli and other potentially harmful bacteria, federal officials announced Wednesday.

In light of these findings, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the water unsafe for human contact.

As reports surfaced Thursday that emergency officials had ordered 25,000 body bags, New Orleans police began a forced removal of some of the 5,000 to 10,000 residents still in the city, The New York Times reported.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had ordered the forced evacuation on Tuesday, nine days after Hurricane Katrina hit, a move that was seconded by U.S. health officials once the test results were revealed.

CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding warned in a teleconference Wednesday that those people remaining in the beleaguered city needed to evacuate, and rescue workers must take precautions to minimize contact with the polluted water.

"Our initial findings indicate that counts for E. coli and coliform bacteria greatly exceed EPA's recommended levels for contact," EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson said at the Wednesday teleconference. "Human contact with the floodwater should be avoided as much as possible."

"Emergency response personnel and the public should avoid direct contact with the floodwater," Johnson added. For people who do come in contact with the water, he recommended washing exposed areas with clean water and soap.

The EPA also tested the water for some 100 chemicals, including pesticides and metals.

"Our testing found that lead concentrations in the floodwater exceed what EPA considers safe for drinking water levels," Johnson said. "No one should drink the floodwater, especially children."

Johnson noted that the situation in the hurricane-ravaged city is changing quickly, and water quality may change as the floodwaters recede. So far testing has been confined to residential areas. There has been no testing of industrialized areas, Johnson said.

The Army Corps of Engineers has begun pumping out water that had inundated 80 percent of the below-sea-level city, after two broken levees released huge amounts of water from Lake Pontchartrain in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Water levels were dropping noticeably across the city as of late Tuesday.

But the health hazards posed by the floodwater are very real, Gerberding said.

"The results from the EPA indicate that the water is full of sewage," she said. "We know that there are many common intestinal illnesses that can be transmitted by ingesting the sewage and, in some cases, by being in the water without protective clothing."

Gerberding pleaded with those remaining in the city to evacuate. "This water is not going away anytime soon, and we have a lot to do to get back to a state of safe drinking water in a safe community," she said.

The top U.S. health officials had said Tuesday at an earlier teleconference that they were doing everything possible to meet the mounting medical needs of victims of Hurricane Katrina.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, who had toured evacuation centers as well as the Gulf Coast destruction zone, said that the health-care response to the disaster had been "massive."

But one of the major public health challenges was to prevent and manage any outbreaks of infectious diseases along the entire Gulf Coast.

Conditions are ripe at crowded shelters for the spread of infectious disease, officials said.

Reports of diarrheal illness were under "active investigation," the CDC's Gerberding, who had also been touring the affected areas, said at the earlier teleconference.

Noroviruses, like those that plague cruise ships, are a big concern. "They are so easily transmitted. It almost requires perfection in personal hygiene to be completely safe," Gerberding said. And hygiene at the overwhelmed evacuation centers is a major challenge.

In addition, people who have already been diagnosed with tuberculosis were being provided with medication, while potential new cases were being investigated and "appropriate containment steps taken," she said.

Health-care workers were also making sure that routine childhood immunizations are up-to-date, especially given that "many of the people in shelters are those that already experience health disparities," Gerberding said. For adults, workers are focusing on tetanus and, when it becomes available, flu shots.

On Thursday, hospitals in the New Orleans area were to receive free supplies of inoculations, including Hep A, Hep B, and tetanus/diphtheria, for residents and rescue workers, according to a spokeswoman at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation.

Officials now estimate 140,000 to 160,000 homes had been submerged or destroyed; 60 to 90 million tons of solid waste must be cleaned up, and 530 sewage treatment plants were inoperable, according to the Times.

And as of Tuesday, the AP reported, 182,000 people were housed in shelters.

More information

The American Cancer Society has more on relief efforts.

SOURCES: Katherine Voss, spokeswoman, Ochsner Clinic Foundation, New Orleans; Sept. 7, 2005, press conference, Julie Gerberding, M.D., director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Stephen L. Johnson, administrator, Environmental Protection Agency; Sept. 6, 2005, press conference with Mike Leavitt, secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Julie Gerberding, M.D., director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Richard Carmona, M.D., U.S. Surgeon General; The New York Times; Associated Press
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