Video: What's in the water?

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The CDC says at least five people have died of waterborne bacterial infections caused by standing water left by Hurricane Katrina on the streets of New Orleans.  There are now reports that traces of E. Coli has also been found. 

Chemicals, gas, bacteria, waste and human remains are just some of things brewing in the toxic soup that is now the Crescent City.

Public health officials say the water poses many threats of disease and should be avoided at all costs.

What's exactly in the water and what happens if someone came into contact with it?  Rear Admiral Craig Vanderwagen is Deputy Chief Medical Officer of the Public Health Service answers those questions and explains what health officials are doing to protect citizens.

TUCKER CARLSON, SITUATION HOST: Admiral, thanks a lot for coming us.  What's in the water?  Do you have any idea?

REAR ADMIRAL CRAIG VANDERWAGEN, PUBLIC HEALTH SERVICE: We are actually actively beginning the process of assessment of water quality, as well as other environmental factors, Tucker.  We have had teams from the CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency begin that process just this week.  And we hope to have some answers shortly on what the highest risks might be. 

CARLSON: We’ve seen so many people wandering through that water, wading through the water.  In some cases, swimming in the water, falling in the water, clearly ingesting some of that water.  What's going to happen to those people?

VANDERWAGEN: The concerns, of course, are primarily for infectious disease at this point.  Most of the rescue workers, we've tried to assure that those folks have immunizations or hepatitis a; hepatitis b; tetanus, and those are the primary things that we'd be concerned about, other than sort of transient bacterial infections. 

CARLSON: Tetanus and hepatitis b, most people are familiar with the terms.  Tell us specifically, what does it mean to get either one of those?  How big of a deal is it?

VANDERWAGEN: Hepatitis, of course, is inflammation or infection involving the liver.  And that can have significant consequences, particularly if it goes chronic. 

It's caused by a virus.  It is preventable, as people have the vaccinations to prevent it. 

Tetanus is another infectious process, and of course, in the most severe cases, it involves neurological changes.

Fortunately, even people who are relatively unprotected have not shown many deaths in the last decades in this country associated with that disease. 

CARLSON: Knowing what you know about what is or what could be in the water, what do you think of how the evacuations have been handled? Have all steps been taken to keep people out of the water?

VANDERWAGEN: I think that all reasonable steps have been taken.  Many of these rescues have occurred by extracting people from the rooftops with helicopters.  With boat extractions, of course, potentially they could be exposed.  But generally, there’s not a super high risk for that. 

I think we’ve had a higher concern for many of the rescue workers.  In fact, in the last week, the last three days, at least, we’ve focused on providing screening occupational physicals and appropriate testing where necessary for many of the public safety workers, particularly there in the city of New Orleans, with the police and fire departments. 

CARLSON: Now, the water being pumped out of the city is going into Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.  Is that going to have consequences in the days, weeks, months to come?

VANDERWAGEN: Well, certainly we don’t know what the environmental or toxic substances might be as yet. 

From the infectious disease perspective, it does a great deal to protect the population, and when you put into those larger bodies of water, the threat of infectious disease declines fairly rapidly, unless you’re going out and drinking it and swimming in it with lots of cuts and sores on your body. 

CARLSON: Speaking of drinking water, I had read today that the water supply in New Orleans, that the pipes themselves beneath New Orleans are contaminated with this stagnant water, and that the water supply will not be clean for some time to come. 

Is that accurate, and how long will it be until you can drink the water there?

VANDERWAGEN: As I say, we have just recently begun the assessment process, and the quick study of that are folks, along with the New Orleans authorities believe there may, in fact, be ruptures in some of the water pipes. 

It’s a fairly antique water system.  And it may be in some cases two to three months before adequate improvements can be made in certain parishes. 

On the other hand, there are parishes now that are actually pumping what appears to be potable water, but we’re assessing that to assure that there’s no particular risk in those areas where the water systems appear to be intact.

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