updated 9/15/2005 10:08:37 AM ET 2005-09-15T14:08:37

New government tests show dangerous amounts of sewage-related bacteria and lead from unknown sources in the floodwaters in New Orleans, and high levels of chemicals such as hexavalent chromium, used in industrial plating, and arsenic, used in treating wood.

Environmental Protection Agency officials are taking samples daily at sites around New Orleans for biological pathogens and more than 100 chemical pollutants, including pesticides, metals and industrial chemicals.

Elevated levels of E. coli and other coliform bacteria that can cause vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain and fever have been found at up to 109 times the EPA’s safe swimming limit. Lead, which can cause nerve damage, was found in one sample at 56 times the EPA’s limit for drinking water; two other samples had it at nearly twice and more than three times the limit.

Five Superfund sites in the region containing some of the nation’s worst toxic messes were flooded, and one of them, a landfill where residents took trash for decades, remains underwater and can’t be reached. Among all the flooded areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, there are 31 Superfund sites.

Five oil spills in New Orleans area
There have been five oil spills in the New Orleans area. Some hazardous waste railcars are believed to be flooded, with water at least up to the wheels, although federal rail officials say they’ve had no reports of leakage so far.

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, who called the hurricane flooding the biggest disaster his agency has ever faced, said the lead contamination is a mystery.

“Whether it’s lead paint or lead from batteries, we don’t know what the source is. But we know we’ve got a high level, and that’s of concern to us,” he said Wednesday, revealing test results from samples taken during the past two weeks. Johnson said he has convened a panel of outside experts to advise the agency on how to assess and clean up the flood damage.

Johnson briefed reporters after giving the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee what Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., called “a grave and sobering assessment” of the trouble.

“We heard that the degree of environmental damage is considered catastrophic,” Jeffords said. “We also heard that the EPA is still in the very early stages of collecting the soil and water samples that are needed to determine whether it is safe for residents to return to the area.”

Tests of the city’s air, which has a strong stench even from a couple hundred feet up, indicated no potential health issues. Only a few air pollutants were detected, such as methanol, a wood alcohol, isobutylene, a flammable gas, and freon, a refrigerant.

Federal agencies aren’t predicting when the city will be habitable.

5,000 ‘orphan containers’ found
The latest chemical samples were drawn Sept. 4 and Sept. 6 by the EPA and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. Like previous tests on Sept. 3, they turned up high levels of chemicals such as hexavalent chromium, arsenic and lead. A slightly elevated level of thallium was detected at one sampling location, but it was not enough to harm the public.

“An enormous amount of debris,” such as tree limbs and building materials, and more than 5,000 “orphan containers” — gas cylinders and at least one barrel of medical waste — have been recovered, said Johnson, who dispatched nearly 650 agency officials and contractors and 50 watercraft to the Gulf coast.

Before they could start assessing the environmental damage and public health risks, EPA personnel helped rescue about 800 people from the floodwaters, Johnson said.

Young children are most susceptible to illness because their immune systems still are developing. However, 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 quart of floodwater a day.

Still, officials from the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly urge people not to wade in or drink the standing water. If contact can’t be avoided, soap and water should be used to clean exposed areas.

Some outside experts said the EPA should not promote a false sense of security.

“There’s a tendency of looking at numbers that are extremely low and getting a sense of security. The fact that the levels are low is to be expected, because you have so much dilution,” said Anthony Buonicore, chairman of Milford, Conn.-based Environmental Data Resources Inc.

Buonicore said that “even though levels of some chemicals may be extremely low, what ultimately happens in the food chain is important.” He said the sampling of sediment and sludge, which the EPA has begun, would be more revealing.

New advisory
EPA did caution that people trying to return to homes and businesses after Hurricane Katrina may be exposed to potentially life-threatening hazards such as leaking natural gas lines and carbon monoxide poisoning from using fuel-burning equipment indoors.

“During a flood cleanup, failure to remove contaminated materials and to reduce moisture and humidity may present serious long-term health risks from micro-organisms, such as bacteria and mold,” the agency advised in a statement Wednesday.

Among the precautions EPA urges, once local authorities authorize a return to homes and businesses, are to:

  • Be aware of possible combustible or explosive gases from broken fuel lines or decaying materials.
  • Open all windows when entering a building and leave immediately if you smell gas or hear it escaping. Avoid creating any source of ignition.
  • Dry out the building and avoid standing water that is a breeding ground for microorganisms and insects such as mosquitoes that can spread West Nile Virus. Contamination also can result from breathing water vapors or mists from contaminated water.

EPA data on Katrina-related environmental issues are online at www.epa.gov/katrina.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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