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Toxic risks remain in Louisiana

Residents returning to the Louisiana coastal areas are not being properly warned about post-hurricane environmental hazards, say community activists.

BY HEATHER MOYER | NEW ORLEANS, La. | February 10, 2006

"Some agencies are contending that the bacteria will die off, but we're finding it alive and causing infections."

—Dr. Wilma Subra

Residents returning to New Orleans and the Louisiana coastal areas are not being properly warned about post-hurricane environmental hazards, say community activists.

Environmental hazards such as bacteria and toxins are present in the remaining sediment piled along the streets, said Dr. Wilma Subra, a chemist for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN).

"There's this layer of sediment sludge that built up in the nearby waters over the 1900s," explained Subra. "It's discharge from the nearby industries. The tidal surges from hurricanes Katrina and Rita scooped it up and brought it onto land. It's in layers from six inches to six feet on the ground here. It's dried out now and becoming dusty, and it contains high levels of arsenic, benzo(a) pyrene and other cancer-causing chemicals."

Subra added that tests she's done show that the sediment also includes high levels of bacteria such as E. coli, staphococcus, salmonella and mold.

"Wherever floodwaters touched - it's there. So when people are allowed to return to these areas, they're not getting warned. They're coming in contact with it and getting rashes, sickness, asthma and respiratory illnesses."

The members of LEAN are making sure residents and work crews are informed of the risks - and that they have the correct protection to re-enter the once flooded areas.

"We offer what we call 're-entry protection kits,'" said Marylee Orr, LEAN's executive director. "The kits consist of a mask, goggles, gloves, a suit and Clorox Ultra. And then we'll also add and subtract to those items depending on what groups and people need. The masks we provide are full- or half-face masks."

Orr estimates that LEAN has distributed more than 32,000 masks and 28,000 coveralls to residents and work teams in New Orleans and southern Louisiana. She added that none of that would have been possible with out the tremendous support from various members of the faith community. She credits the United Church of Christ National Disaster Ministries office for stepping up to support such a huge issue. "We're so grateful that the faith community has been responding," said Orr.

Beyond the residents who may return unprotected and uninformed, Orr and LEAN also worry about the immigrant workers being brought in to help with the cleanup of the region. "We visited with one Latino workers' organizer who said that among the 500 workers she was with - there were only two protective masks," said Orr. "We have such tremendous anxiety for people - these workers are cleaning homes and businesses."

Orr is concerned that many of the workers and returning residents cannot afford the needed protective gear either, which she said is yet another reason she is grateful for the faith community's support in helping to fund the gear. Local organizations are also partnering with LEAN in cleanup efforts.

Common Ground, a recovery organization formed after Hurricane Katrina, is recruiting volunteers to help clean New Orleans' neighborhoods and homes. Alain Depremesnil said the agency's volunteers utilize the re-entry kits provided by LEAN. "Our work consists of gutting homes, cleaning them up and helping people move back into their neighborhoods," said Depremesnil, the supply and distribution center coordinator for Common Ground.

"We train our volunteers and there's always an experienced worker going out with them to help and lead."

He worries about the gaps he sees between his workers and homeowners. "Our volunteers are well-equipped but the homeowners are certainly not. I've seen people go into their homes with no protection whatsoever, just in their everyday clothes. Some people have even moved back into their homes without gutting them at all. They're living in mud and have nowhere else to go."

Depremesnil said Common Ground also helps distribute the re-entry kits, but there are never enough. "Everything is in short supply down here. We have some protective equipment in our distribution center, but it's never enough."

Subra said LEAN is working on behalf of residents, as it has always done in its 19-year existence. She also regularly holds workshops for residents. "These are the communities we were working with before. They've asked us to come tell them what's going on. I do workshops with them to show them the data and let them make their own decisions."

In December, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) announced that no serious long-term health effects should be expected in southeastern Louisiana from the environmental contamination caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The results came after testing and research done with the Centers for Disease Control, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

From the Dec. 9 press release: "Results of the assessment indicate that there are generally no unacceptable long-term health risks directly attributable to environmental contamination resulting from the storms....The assessment was based on the review of more than a thousand environmental samples collected and analyzed over the past months."

The release also states that "The assessment is based on outdoor environmental conditions existing in Orleans, St. Bernard, Jefferson and Plaquemines Parishes flooded by Katrina. After analyzing more than a thousand samples, each for hundreds of contaminants, the agencies agreed that if people avoid obvious signs of hazardous materials, practice good personal hygiene and use common sense, exposure to the environment should not cause any long-term health effects. Some people may experience short-term effects related to dust, pollen and mold - which are prevalent because of the flooding and time of year. However, the majority of outdoor environmental samples, except for those in isolated areas, show pre-Katrina levels."

The only area the agency excluded was the area near Murphy Oil in St. Bernard Parish, where an oil spill tainted the area during Hurricane Katrina. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Web site offers re-entry information for that area.

Yet the LEAN workers remain nervous about health effects. Subra worries about the emissions from the oil spill affecting those who are now living in the area, adding that people are now living in FEMA trailers in the area of the oil spill. She also remains concerned about statements regarding bacteria levels dying once the sediment dries out.

"Some agencies are contending that the bacteria will die off, but we're finding it alive and causing infections," said Subra.

The agencies involved with the LDEQ December 9 press release responded to criticism of that statement in early February by stating that the environmental evaluations are not yet complete, noting that some regions will require further testing and monitoring.

Local churches are using LEAN's testing data to warn returning families. The Rev. Cory Sparks credits LEAN for its amazing work in keeping the public informed.

"They've been extraordinarily helpful," said Sparks, pastor of two New Orleans' churches - Carrollton United Methodist Church and Parker Memorial United Methodist Church. "They've been there with the technical advice on how to protect homeowners and volunteers. We're intentional about reaching out to returning families. We've found families living in moldy homes and told them - especially those with elderly family members or infants - that they need to get out and find protection. We're also trying to find other places for them to live in the meantime.

"I'm concerned simply because of the scope of this disaster. Thousands of homes were flooded - we need to be intentional about this advice."

Sparks said his churches are now United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) "Storm Stations." Recovery supplies are available to families at the sites and volunteers also get recruited for gutting homes. He said all of his volunteers use the LEAN re-entry kits and they distribute them to families as frequently as they can. Sparks is also working closely with other churches to spread the environmental news.

The task before the involved agencies is large - with so many homes flooded and so many residents trying to reclaim their property. Orr said they are trying to remain positive about the recovery, but the entire situation - even beyond the environmental impact - is much larger than anyone had ever imagined possible.

"This is a nightmare really," she explained. "Even though we'd thought about a lot of different scenarios (before Katrina), I don't think anybody was prepared for the magnitude of this. The flooding, actually seeing all of this sediment several feet high in some areas and knowing the contamination, it's a grave concern. There's a high level of bacteria in the soil that doesn't seem to be going away. And what about the social stressors for people? We wonder about increased suicide, drinking and drug abuse. This affected everyone from the very poor to the affluent. There are multiple layers to this, people don't even realize it."

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