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Post-storm toxins pose risk

Arsenic and other toxins left behind by last year's hurricanes could be making people sick for years to come.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | August 25, 2006

Arsenic and other toxins left behind by last year's hurricanes could be making people sick for years to come.

Chemist Wilma Subra has found high concentrations of arsenic along the Gulf Coast. After evaluating soil samples, she visited Jackson County, Mississippi, where she presented her findings. Some residents in that area have been complaining of medical problems since last year.

The highest arsenic concentrations in Mississippi are 27 times above acceptable levels set by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and Environmental Protection Agency. These high levels were found in Moss Point, Gulfport and Pearlington.

Arsenic, a river-bottom sediment, is a carcinogen that causes skin and lung cancer. It is also a potential teratogen, or an agent that causes malformation of an embryo or fetus. Skin contact and eye contact with arsenic can also cause irritations.

The only way to avoid exposure is to get rid of the contaminated sediment, said Subra, founder of a Louisiana-based environmental consulting organization. She has taken soil samples in several states affected by Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Rita. "There is a need for removal and proper disposal of the contaminated sediment/sludge in people's homes, yards, school yards, churches, etc.," she said.

Subra found that arsenic is the most prevalent heavy metal in the sediment sludge above accepted standards. But there are also a number of other heavy metals, a host of bacteria and lot of petroleum products since gasoline was stored in many homes.

Subra believes the extent of the problem has been under-researched by the government and underplayed by the media.

Contaminants exempted nobody: the toxins washed over rural, urban and suburban areas in the wake of both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, said Subra.

"The tidal surges and flood waters associated with both hurricanes scooped up and transported contaminated sediments onto the land, and spread the contaminated sediments across a large portion of the coastal lands, towns, streets, yards, parks, and inside homes, schools, churches and businesses," she said.

When a hurricane churns up sediment, it can bring to the surface decades worth of toxins that settled long before today's environmental regulations were in place.

"The contaminated sediment originated in the bottoms of water bodies, lakes, rivers and estuaries in the paths of the hurricanes," explained Subra. "The sediments were contaminated by many decades of discharges from industry, municipalities, businesses, and agricultural runoff."

Heavy metals, organics and micro-biological organisms in the sediment can harm people when they expose their skin to the sediment, inhale it or ingest it.

In other words, it's very difficult to avoid exposure, said Subra. "The sediment/sludge is a layer depositedĀ on all surfaces, readily available, and easily dispersed into the air. Human exposure pathways from skin contact, and inhalation and ingestion are hard to impossible to avoid."

Over the short term, health impacts are skin rashes, skin infections, asthma, allergic reactions and eye irritation. Over the long-term, contaminants can cause increased rates of cancer and birth defects.

People with resources can hire cleanup crews to remove the contaminated soil. But low-income families are often stuck living on poisonous ground. "In the poorer sections of the communities, the (toxic) material remains readily available and continues to impact the people living and working to address the rebuilding efforts," said Subra.

It's time to agitate for action at a community level, added Subra. "Education is one of the best tools to make the community members aware of the problem and push for solutions at the local level."

Many federal and state agencies are now shying away from the responsibility because it is costly, she said.

And the longer they wait, the harder it is to clean up. Contaminants have spread - even to the grass that, a year later, is now growing in countless yards.

About Wilma Subra

Wilma Subra is founder and principal in the Subra Company, a Louisiana-based chemistry laboratory and environmental consulting organization launched in 1981. She is vice chair of the Environmental Protection Agency National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology, and a member of the Environmental Protection Agency National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC). She serves on the Cumulative Risks and Impacts Working Group of the NEJAC Council, as well as with the National Advisory Committee of the U.S. Representative to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation.

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