New Orleans floodwaters a stew of sewage and toxic chemicals

Toxic chemicals contaminating the New Orleans floodwaters may be less of a short-term health hazard than plain ol’ poop. Federal officials have declared a public health emergency for the Gulf Coast, fearing that viruses and bacteria from sewage in the floodwaters could cause a major outbreak of intestinal illnesses. And while the noxious stew swirling in the city’s streets — a mix that likely includes dry-cleaning solvents, household cleaners, and gasoline from gas stations — is a concern, experts express relief that chemical facilities and refineries near the city have remained intact. While some plants were flooded once the levees broke, they were apparently spared the force of the storm surge, which might have cracked storage tanks and released tons of chemicals into the floodwaters. “It’s not the worst scenario we could have envisioned,” says a local water-resources expert. As floodwaters recede, however, foul goop may concentrate and be deposited as a layer of contamination that could complicate the city’s clean-up and restoration.