Gulf Floodwaters Still Pose Health Risks

Threats include bacteria and chemical pollutants, U.S. experts say

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 14, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- As the death toll from Hurricane Katrina surged past 650 on Tuesday, federal officials said floodwaters in the devastated Gulf Coast region remain contaminated with E. coli and other bacteria, high levels of lead, oil products and other dangerous chemicals.

Drinking water must be boiled. And land is also contaminated with debris that runs the gamut from toxic waste to tree limbs, EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson said at a news conference.

"We continue to sample the flood water," Johnson said. "We are seeing a range of chemicals from 24D barium, chromium, copper, sodium and iron."

"This is one of the biggest environmental challenges in our agency's history. Since we haven't seen anything of this scale before, it's hard to make specific predictions," said Eryn Witcher, an EPA spokeswoman. The agency's top priority is a quick cleanup that protects people's health, she told the Associated Press.

The death toll continues to climb in the flood-ravaged Gulf Coast, with Louisiana's count rising to 423 after the discovery of the bodies of 34 elderly patients -- presumed drowned -- at a Chalmette nursing home.

Proprietors Salvador and Mable Mangano now face homicide charges for the deaths, with authorities claiming they did not heed warnings to evacuate their patients as Katrina came ashore Aug. 29. The two reportedly also turned down an offer of evacuation help from St. Bernard Parish officials.

Johnson noted that drinking water systems throughout the region are still not working properly. "In some cases, they are not working because there is no electricity," he said. "In other cases, such as New Orleans, they are operating, but there are 'boil-water advisories' because the water is unsafe."

Young children are most susceptible to illness because their immune systems are still developing. But, the EPA said the amount of chemicals found in the water would pose a risk to children only if a child were to drink a liter of floodwater a day, the AP said.

Nonetheless, officials from the EPA and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly urged people not to wade in or drink standing water. If contact can't be avoided, soap and water to clean exposed areas should be used, the news service said.

Waste-treatment facilities remain crippled, Johnson said, with many systems in Louisiana and Mississippi not operating, he said.

"Drinking water systems need attention," Johnson said. "Waste-water systems need attention. We are on the scene trying to help state and local communities bring them back up."

The EPA and state authorities are also testing the water in the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. To prevent further contamination from oil and gasoline and other pollutants, the EPA has placed booms in these and other waterways where floodwater is draining.

In terms of the land, Johnson said there is an enormous amount of debris. "The kind of debris we are seeing ranges from trees to hazardous materials," he said. "We have recovered over 5,000 orphan containers that range from gas cylinders to medical waste disposal drums."

Another problem is the sediment left behind by flooding, he said.

"We have begun to sample the sediment from New Orleans," Johnson said. "We don't have any results yet. Our labs have had difficulty doing the analysis because the sediment samples are so laden with petroleum products -- it is hard to get those products out of the sediment so that you can look for other chemicals or bacteria."

Johnson also noted that hazardous waste and superfund sites -- uncontrolled or abandoned places where hazardous waste is located -- were disrupted by the hurricane. "We are now looking at what steps to take to assure the public that these sites have not been compromised. One superfund site remains underwater."

The EPA has also received numerous reports of chemical odors and oil spills. "There have been five oil spills in New Orleans to date," Johnson said.

So far, air sampling has not detected any serious chemical or radioactive releases, he said, adding that the EPA will continue to work with state and local agencies to monitor environmental conditions.

More information

The EPA can tell you more about environmental testing in the hurricane affected areas.

SOURCES: Sept. 14, 2005, press briefing, Stephen L. Johnson, Environmental Protection Agency administrator; the Associated Press
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