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A drained N.O. still an unhealthy place

Those returning to the city could be putting themselves at risk
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New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is understandably in a hurry to reopen the city, but the water in New Orleans is loaded with dangerous levels of lead, hundreds of chemical pollutants, high levels of E coli and bacteria from raw sewage, decomposing human and animal remains still in the water, oil from at least five major spills, and hazardous waste from flooded rail cars and trucks. 

Despite the progress that has been made in draining the water out of the city, he threat of disease has to be seen as a great threat for everybody that's in New Orleans now and possibly the 200,000 people that could be coming into that city soon.

On Friday, Dr. Marc Siegel, NYU School of Medicine, and he is author of "False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear," joined Joe Scarborough to talk about the health risks that still exist on the Gulf Coast.

JOE SCARBOROUGH:  Is this an epidemic of fear, or do people going back into New Orleans have a reason to be concerned about the toxic brew that is still covering parts of their city? 

SIEGEL:  Well, Joe, they definitely have a reason to be concerned. 

And not only that, I am concerned that, coming back into such a city after losing their homes and their loved ones, they are going to be in a condition of terrible emotions, you know, stress, post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety.  And that interferes with the ability to assess risk properly.  So, you know, the waters are going to be riskier because people aren't going to be as calm facing them.

And there's a lot of debris that's going to start to surface as the waters get drained.  And, in this kind of a situation, injury is a very possible problem.  And then you get wounds that don't heal.  And, as you mentioned, the water has a lot of bacteria in it.  If you get it in your mouth, you can get very, very sick.  So, I am not sure how wise it is for the people to be coming back, but, for sure, it's not going to work well unless people are calm. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Doctor, we are looking at the water that is just spewing out right now, I mean, in that water, again, chemical pollutants, E coli, decomposing human remains, decomposing animal remains, oil spills.  We had a chemical spill from a train earlier.  is there anything you can do to clean that water, or do you just have to wait for natural, I guess it's attenuation?

SIEGEL:  Well, actually, Joe, as they drain the water, the Environmental Protection Agency and others are going to have to try to consider how much soil to get out of there, because the soil is definitely going to be contaminated, too, by the bacteria and by the oil spills and by the chemical solvents. 

So far, as has been reported, they have seen lead and a lot of bacteria, a trace amount of arsenic and a trace amount of chromium.  Now, this is not at a level where it's harmful acutely.  It's not going to cause a problem unless you ingested a lot of it.  But, down the line, it could cause a risk, and so they really, really have to get these toxins out of there.  And it's going to take a long time. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Doctor, final question.  It's the $64,000 question I always ask experts when you are talking about health issues like this.  If a family member of yours called you up tonight and said, should I go back to New Orleans, I want to go back, check out my house, may just end up living there, wait for the electricity to come on, what would you tell them? 

SIEGEL:  Well, Joe, you know what I would tell them.  I would say it was not wise right now.  I would say, you know, time to back off. 

I mean, with decaying bodies in the water, and with all this bacteria and risk of infection and not enough potable water to drink and still a risk of dehydration and getting wounds and having diarrhea, I would say, just wait, and let them clean up the city.