Tuesday, December 06, 2005

New Orleans unhealthy, groups say

By Tom Kenworthy, USA TODAY

Federal and state environmental agencies are downplaying long-term health dangers posed by chemicals in sediment that covers much of the New Orleans area, several environmental groups charged Thursday.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the nation's largest environmental groups, and several local Louisiana environmental groups said that heavy metals, petroleum components and pesticides in the dusty residue left behind by Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters pose such a risk that families with children shouldn't return until it is cleaned up.
"The cancer risk and the risk of other long-term health effects is quite significant according to (federal) standards," said Gina Solomon, a physician with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The groups, including the non-profit Advocates for Environmental Human Rights law firm in Louisiana, based their assessment on tests they conducted in September and October. The tests found:

• Average levels of arsenic that are 31 times higher than the level at which federal Environmental Protection Agency guidelines require that soil in residential areas be cleaned up. Exposure to arsenic can cause a variety of cancers.

• The presence of banned pesticides in soil samples taken near an abandoned industrial facility in New Orleans' Gert Town neighborhood west of the French Quarter. Levels of pesticides such as DDT and dieldrin exceeded EPA cleanup standards.

• High levels of cancer-causing hydrocarbons from petroleum products near a federal toxic waste site in New Orleans' Bywater neighborhood northeast of the French Quarter. Tests found levels as much as 20 times higher than EPA cleanup standards.

The groups' test results largely conform with what the EPA and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality found in samples taken since September. But the groups and government agencies disagree on the implications.

"It's how they interpret it," said Dana Shepherd, a toxicologist with the Louisiana environmental department. Some toxic standards, she said, are based on "a child eating that dirt for 350 days a year for a lifetime."

The government agencies recommend that residents take simple precautions when exposed to sediment, such as wearing respirators and washing exposed skin. However, Shepherd said, the state sees "no immediate health issues" that should concern the public.

State and federal regulators aren't focusing enough on the threats from long-term exposure, the environmentalists said. "We feel that they are grossly misleading the public in the way they represent their own data," said Erik Olson, an NRDC attorney.

The NRDC's Solomon said that healthy adults who take precautions shouldn't fear short-term exposure to sediment. Children and adults with respiratory or heart problems should avoid it, she said. "People can return, but at the same time the cleanup needs to proceed," Solomon said.


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