A new health risk emerged Friday from the sediment of New Orleans — test results showing that diesel and fuel oils, which can take years to break down, make up as much as a 10th of the weight of some sediment samples.
The test results came from 18 sediment samples drawn Sept. 10 from across the New Orleans area, where there have been five flood-related oil spills since Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29.
Earlier tests turned up dangerous amounts of sewage-related bacteria and lead in floodwaters and more than 100 chemical pollutants.
The Environmental Protection Agency said Friday it also found E. coli bacteria in the sediment — the residue left from water, soil from backyards and road and construction debris — as well as slightly elevated levels of arsenic and lead. It didn’t report the levels of E. coli bacteria, and there’s no health standard for how much E. coli can be in soil or sediment.
“The presence of E. coli, however, does imply the presence of fecal bacteria and exposure to sediment should therefore be limited if possible,” EPA said.
Fuel oils such as kerosene, jet fuel, range oil and home heating oil irritate the skin and, if breathed, cause nausea, headaches, increased blood pressure, light-headedness, appetite loss, poor coordination and difficulty concentrating. Breathing diesel-fuel vapors for long periods can cause kidney damage and lower the blood’s ability to clot.
William Farland, EPA’s acting science adviser, said he was not seeing anything in the sediment that suggests a big public health risk, “as long as people are careful to remove the sediment, keep it from getting on their bare skin and clean it off if they do.”
New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said this week he expects some of the city’s neighborhoods to reopen and up to 180,000 people to move back over the next two weeks as electricity and water are restored .
“The sediment itself will not be the only issue that determines whether people can move back in,” Farland said in an interview Friday. “There are significantly larger and more important issues, such as the structural integrity of homes, the ability to have functioning water and wastewater, the question of whether there is appropriate electrical support and whether there are gas leaks.”
Scientists worry that as the sediment dries, the pollutants in it can evaporate and, as gases in the air, they could be inhaled by people. Some chemicals found in fuel oils can easily evaporate, while others more easily dissolve in water. The agencies plan to collect air samples.
Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst at EPA who has been a longtime whistleblower within the agency, called it “reckless and irresponsible” for EPA to imply that people moving back into New Orleans will be safe.
While EPA has conducted limited monitoring by aircraft of air pollution in New Orleans, Kaufman said there has not been an environmental assessment of all of the contaminants in the air “to allow the public back in, especially without respirators and other protective gear.”
“This is the same situation that occurred in New York City after the Twin Towers came down,” he said. “It’s as outrageous as when (former EPA Administrator Christie) Whitman went on record just days after the attacks and said the air was OK to breathe.”
Farland said EPA and Louisiana officials were being careful about how they approach air, water and sediment sampling and analyzing the data. “We’re not drawing any conclusions,” he said. “At this point, what you see is what you get.”
He said the initial sediment results represent only the beginning of sampling efforts and may not characterize all sediments throughout the area.