Arsenic Contamination Found at New Orleans Schoolyards
More than thirty percent of New Orleans schoolyards tested two years after Hurricane Katrina are contaminated with arsenic in amounts two to three times the levels requiring cleanup under both state and federal law, according to findings released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). On first learning the results in June, NRDC immediately informed both the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But with school now back in session, neither agency has taken any measures to protect students.
“Families who have chosen to return to rebuild their communities shouldn’t have to worry that their children are playing in schoolyards contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals,” said Dr. Gina Solomon, senior scientist for NRDC. “State and federal agencies are ducking their legal and moral responsibility to the people of New Orleans.”
Health experts at NRDC and local groups say the arsenic contamination was left behind in the layers of sediment coating much of the city in the wake of Katrina’s flooding. They say there are simple, comparatively inexpensive steps that can be taken almost immediately to alleviate the risks. The recommended solution in most cases is to remove and replace the first 6 inches of contaminated soil. Sampling should also be done at more locations around the city to make sure that other contaminated sites have not been missed.
In March 2007, NRDC researchers sampled more than one hundred sites in New Orleans. The results showed that 6 of the 19 schoolyards tested contained soil that exceeded clean-up guidelines for arsenic established by LDEQ and EPA.
LDEQ officials have previously tried to disavow responsibility for the problem, arguing that contamination predated the storm. The new findings strongly indicate otherwise, however. NRDC crosschecked samples from 63 locations in residential areas throughout the city against samples collected before the storm, and confirmed that before Katrina, arsenic was not a problem in most of them.
“There is strong evidence to prove Hurricane Katrina exacerbated arsenic levels throughout the city,” said Al Huang, environmental justice attorney for NRDC. “Regardless of the cause, there are children being exposed to arsenic today, and it is the duty of our government to right that wrong.”
The arsenic found in this sediment could have originated from multiple sources including the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain, through a past accumulation of arsenic-based pesticides; trash incineration; leakage from industrial sites; or lumber pressure-treated with chromium-copper arsenate.
Since Katrina, neither the LDEQ nor the EPA has conducted a single clean-up of contaminated sediment.
Arsenic is toxic to humans, and is known to cause cancer. Arsenic exposure is particularly harmful for children and can lead to other serious health problems including birth defects, cardiovascular disease and neurological disorders. Soil contaminated with arsenic can be inhaled when the dirt is moved around. It can also enter the body by going from a person’s hands to their eyes or mouth. Children’s tendency to put their hands in their mouths make them particularly vulnerable.
“There is no justification for allowing arsenic to be anywhere near residents or children,” said Wilma Subra, a chemist for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. “Now that we know the film of sediment covering parts of New Orleans contains high levels of arsenic, we need our government to take action and clean it up.”
Both LDEQ and EPA responded to the June warning via letter with the conclusion that they are not authorized to move forward on clean-up or even a site assessment unless the schools can prove that Hurricane Katrina was the cause of the contaminated sediment. NRDC has learned that LDEQ recently conducted sampling at 4 of the 6 schoolyards with contaminated soil, after the school year began. The LDEQ has not made the results of their testing public.
“The testing shows that our children are being exposed to dangerously high levels of arsenic,” said Beverly Wright, Director of Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ). “It is the government’s responsibility to provide clean and healthy schools for our children, and it is their duty and moral obligation to help this city get back on its feet. In the meantime, community-based projects will continue to do the hard work of cleaning up our own neighborhoods block-by-block.”
The report was prepared by NRDC's experts on health and environmental justice and is available online. It identifies the key environmental health risks posed by Hurricane Katrina and evaluates the level of these risks two years later. The report also outlines the solutions that government officials should enact to protect New Orleans’ citizens as they continue to rebuild their homes and communities.
Recommendations for government agencies include additional sampling, assessment and clean-up of toxic sites, establishing an effective process for debris and waste management, and fully informing the public of health risks including access to protective equipment and treatment, if necessary.
This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.