Arsenic and Old Waste: The Environmental Legacy of Hurricane Katrina

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Susan Cowsill, a singer-songwriter (and member of the famous 1960s singing family) says the culture of New Orleans is a big part of her music. But it was with some trepidation that she and her family recently returned home after a nomadic post-Katrina existence in Austin and Houston. "I want to believe what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is saying, that it is safe" she says.

On December 16, an EPA advisory assured residents that most samples taken between October 29 and November 27 showed chemical concentrations "below acceptable levels." But, it added, a limited number of samples showed high concentrations of, among other things, arsenic, hydrocarbons, chlordane, dieldrin, aldrin and lead. The EPA and Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) were "working together to determine next steps."

So how worried should people be, as they contemplate moving back to the Big Easy? Environmental consultant and chemist Wilma Subra, a MacArthur Prize winner, says they should be very worried indeed. The big problem, she said, is sediment that sat on the bottom of rivers and other water bodies collecting industrial chemical contamination and agricultural runoff. The sediment was relatively harmless in situ, but it was deposited all over New Orleans by the storm.

Subra's own tests, conducted at 33 locations in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama for the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, showed especially elevated levels of arsenic, but also high amounts of lead, dioxin, chromium and other hazardous substances well above safe standards. The EPA's results were radically different, she said, because they're based on the extremely relaxed state LDEQ standards. Held to the stricter federal numbers, she said, a majority of the samples would have exceeded safe levels for arsenic, among other chemicals.

Dr. Peter L. deFur, a biologist who conducts research on environmental health and ecological risk assessment at Virginia Commonwealth Institute, says short-term effects can include respiratory problems and skin rashes. Possible longer-term effects are cancer and birth defects. Children are most at risk from exposure to the sediment, he says, "because they are both closer to the ground and more susceptible to toxic exposures because of their developing status." A recent Columbia University/Mailman School of Public Health Study found that children exposed to arsenic-tainted water from wells in Bangladesh faced reduced intellectual function.

The EPA doesn't say whether it's safe for residents to move back to New Orleans. Those decisions, says EPA Press Secretary Eryn Witcher, "incorporate a variety of factors, which are best made by local officials. EPA is committed to sharing the results of our water, air and sediment sampling and test results with federal, state and local partners so local officials can consider a variety of factors."

EPA warns New Orleans residents to avoid contact with the sediment, but Subra says that it has now become airborne and would be very difficult to avoid even if residents had access to the protective clothing, respirators and gloves the environmental agency recommends (but doesn't provide). "It's in all of the areas where the flood waters reached," she says. "It was dangerous when it was wet because it stuck to skin, but now it has dried, cracked and become powdery so that it can be blown around by the wind. You can see it in the air and taste it when you drive down the street. It's in the yard, in the house--people are breathing it in the whole time."

The worst danger from the sediment, then, is in New Orleans' poorest neighborhoods. According to the Brookings Institution, 38 of the city's 49 poorest districts were flooded. And 80 percent of the neighborhoods under water had non-white majorities.

"We're seeing what's called the 'Katrina cough,'" says Mary Lee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. …