EPA, CDC Report Dangers In New Orleans Floodwater

Preliminary information from sampling by EPA indicates that bacteria counts for E. coli in sampled areas greatly exceed EPA's recommended levels for contact. At these levels, human contact with water should be avoided, EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on Sept. 7.

Floodwaters from multiple locations across the New Orleans area were sampled by EPA and analyzed for chemicals and bacteria. These initial results represent the beginning of extensive sampling efforts and do not represent the condition of all flood waters throughout the area, agency officials said.

Additional chemical sampling was performed for priority pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), semivolatile organic compounds (SVOCs), total metals, pesticides, herbicides, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Results from these analyses were compared to various Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and EPA health levels. Lead concentrations in water exceeded drinking water action levels. These levels are a concern if a child ingests large amounts of flood water. For the additional chemicals tested, we have yet to detect contaminant levels that would pose human health risks. Due to the priority of the search and rescue mission, EPA testing has focused on neighborhoods and not in heavily industrialized areas.

Given these results, it is imperative that remaining residents comply with evacuation orders, said CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding. The agencies cautioned emergency response personnel and the public to avoid direct contact with standing water when possible. In the event contact occurs, EPA and CDC strongly advise the use of soap and water to clean exposed areas if available. Flood water should obviously not be swallowed and all mouth contact should be avoided.

People should immediately report any symptoms to health professionals. The most likely symptoms are stomachache, fever, vomiting and diarrhea. Additional information regarding health and safety issues for both the public and emergency responders can be found on the Center for Disease Control (CDC) Web site (http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/hurricanes/index.asp) and OSHA's Web site (http://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/hurricaneRecovery.html). According to CDC, four people may have died of a waterborne bacterial infection in the floodwaters.

Preliminary water testing data will be confirmed through additional EPA testing and data analyses to ensure that all data is of the highest quality, agency officials said. EPA is implementing a rigorous scientific process to ensure that the flood waters of New Orleans are thoroughly sampled for multiple types of key contaminants as appropriate. EPA is actively coordinating all sampling activities and data analyses with federal, state, and local agencies.

Tests are being conducted by EPA in other areas as well. According to estimates, more than 1,000 drinking water systems in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama were affected by the hurricane.

For additional EPA information, go to http://www.epa.gov/katrina. Also see CDC's Web page After a Hurricane: Key Facts About Infectious Disease at http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/hurricanes/infectiousdisease.asp.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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