Assessing toxic hazards in New Orleans challenges the EPA

The post-Katrina mess of pollution along the Gulf Coast is “the largest national disaster that we at EPA or, we believe, that the nation has faced,” U.S. EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said yesterday. Serious health problems threaten the region, he said, including floodwaters tainted with sewage-related bacteria and toxic chemicals, and a shortage of clean drinking water. The New Orleans area has also been hit with five major oil spills in the wake of the hurricane. The EPA is testing floodwaters regularly for more than 100 chemical compounds and has detected dangerously high levels of three substances: lead, hexavalent chromium, and arsenic — the latter two known human carcinogens. Lower amounts of other chemicals, including pesticides and metals related to petroleum products, have also been detected. UCLA environmental health expert John Froines notes that some of these compounds can be absorbed through the skin, and that thousands of relief workers and law-enforcement officers wading through the waters every day may be at significant risk.