September 16, 2005

Tests So Far Show New Orleans Not a Toxic Gumbo

NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans has not became a hazardous waste site coated in a toxic stew as originally feared, although many flooded areas are coated with a smelly sludge, experts said on Friday.

They said that while the water in New Orleans was far from pristine, they had not found much evidence of the widespread contamination that had been feared.

"So far there are no big issues long-term," said Jerry Fenner, a public health analyst with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The water is clearly contaminated with raw sewage because many sewage pumping stations are not working. But if people do not drink or soak in the water, there are few concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency said.

There are high levels of E. coli bacteria, which suggest there potentially could be other diarrhea-causing microbes, but there have been no serious outbreaks of disease, the CDC says.

Some areas of Jefferson Parish, which partly surrounds New Orleans, have clean, contaminant-free drinking water. In the areas that are not yet clean, residents who return are being cautioned not to drink the water although they may use it to flush toilets.

There are also a few heavy metals in the water but not dangerous levels, the EPA said.

"The levels of metals detected were below levels that would be expected to produce adverse health effects. Overall, three samples had slightly elevated arsenic and lead levels. The level of lead detected is typical of that found in urban areas," the EPA said in a statement on Monday.

There had been fears that other chemicals such as oil, dry-cleaning fluids and solvents such as benzene would be spread widely but the EPA said testing so far had not indicated this had actually happened.

"Volatile organic compounds were detected at very low levels," the EPA said.

Prolonged contact with such compounds can cause a rash but once they dry they are unlikely to pose a health risk, the experts said.

"People feared there would be toxic pits," Fenner said in an interview. "The data we have seen so far doesn't support it."

Fenner said oil spills were being contained well. "We went out there and they are doing an amazing job cleaning it up," he said.

The U.S. Coast Guard said the oil spilled in six major Louisiana incidents after Hurricane Katrina had been contained and almost none of it flowed directly into the Mississippi River.

A total of 160,000 barrels of oil leaked from tanks and pipelines at the six principal sites damaged by the August 29 hurricane, including Murphy Oil Corp.'s refinery in Mereux, just east of New Orleans.

Of that, teams have recovered some 50,000 barrels, each of which equals 42 gallons.

"Much of the oil has already dispersed naturally or has evaporated, said Capt. Frank Paskewich, federal on-scene coordinator for the Coast Guard.