- Initial testing of the flood water showed extremely high levels of bacteria, sewage and chemicals from oil and gasoline. Speculation abounded about the “toxic soup” that would poison people and the land.
- Tests have shown that while the water was definitely unsanitary, it didn’t significantly differ from the normal storm runoff New Orleans experiences during heavy rain,
- He explained that most of the flooded areas were residential, not industrial. Even where a container of pesticide was left unsealed, the power of dilution in so much flood water made the impact negligible,
When Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, people predicted a life-threatening “toxic soup.” It never formed.
They expected Lake Ponchartrain to suffer or even die as contaminated water from New Orleans was pumped into it. That didn’t occur.
Then they waited for returning residents to pack emergency rooms with lung ailments from the toxic dust, contaminated soil and mold. That hasn’t happened yet. So far, state Epidemiologist Dr. Raoult Ratard said, nothing appears out of the ordinary with illness in the New Orleans area.
While Hurricane Katrina caused massive destruction, many dire environmental predictions failed to materialize, state officials say.
Initial testing of the flood water showed extremely high levels of bacteria, sewage and chemicals from oil and gasoline. Speculation abounded about the “toxic soup” that would poison people and the land.
Tests have shown that while the water was definitely unsanitary, it didn’t significantly differ from the normal storm runoff New Orleans experiences during heavy rain, state Department of Environmental Quality scientists say.
John Pardue, associate professor and director of the Louisiana Water Resources Research Institute at LSU, said his research results seem consistent with what DEQ and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found.
“It’s fair to say the water there was just like normal storm water,” Pardue said.
He explained that most of the flooded areas were residential, not industrial. Even where a container of pesticide was left unsealed, the power of dilution in so much flood water made the impact negligible, he said.
“For the most part, those things floated away pretty intact without major spills,” Pardue said.
Part of the confusion involves how some groups compare test results to standards, said Tom Harris, administrator of DEQ’s environmental technology division.
At one point, groups were applying drinking-water standards to flood-water samples, he said. The drinking-water standard is based on someone consuming two liters daily for 30 years. That wasn’t going to happen with New Orleans flood water, Harris said.
Another fear was that dust from contaminated soil would pose a severe health threat.
Harris said the way soil samples were taken led to some confusion.
The first round of EPA testing took samples from the worst areas instead of trying to get an overall picture of the city’s safety. So if contamination could be seen, a sample was taken, meaning testing was done on storm drains and in areas were there was no flood-water sediment, he said.
Harris said in one round of testing, DEQ found that out of 160 samples taken by EPA, only 14 were from actual flood sediment. The rest were from soils that were probably there before the flooding, he said.
So where did the idea of a toxic New Orleans start, and why has that image lingered in the public mind?
Chalk that up to human nature, DEQ Secretary Mike McDaniel said. The concentration of industry led many people, even experts, to expect horrific contamination.
“Unfortunately, those first concepts took root and spread around the world,” McDaniel said.
News reports circulated of a chemical plant blast, train car explosions and the ever-popular toxic soup.
“None of it was true,” McDaniel said. “That’s the result of the initial feeding frenzy — what’s the comment I heard the other day? — of disaster porn. It just frustrated the dickens out of me.”
In December, federal, state and local officials held a news conference on the safety of New Orleans. Public health officials urged people to take precautions against mold and to be careful while removing debris, but insisted the water, soil and air were safe.
“We’ve seen very little to be concerned about. Actually, nothing to be concerned about,” said June Sutherlin, a DEQ toxicologist.
Not everyone agrees with that assessment.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network have repeatedly accused DEQ and EPA of playing down the dangers.
Pam Dashiell, president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association in New Orleans, cites an analysis by Dr. Gina Solomon.
“The concerns have not yet been addressed,” Dashiell said. “There’s been no remediation. It’s a matter of the EPA just not doing its job.”
Solomon, a physician who works with the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, said she agrees with the test numbers posted by EPA and DEQ, but disagrees with how those results are being portrayed by the agencies.
She takes exception to the statement that there was no “toxic soup” in New Orleans.
“I think it all hinges on the definition of toxic soup,” she said.
There’s no dispute that oil, gasoline and a lot of bacteria were in the flood water, she noted.
While that contamination might be at the same level as the runoff from any storm in the city, the major difference is exposure. People walking through an inch or two of water have far less exposure to contaminants than those swimming in it, a common occurrence after Katrina, Solomon said.
Downplaying the results, she said, is an effort to make people feel comfortable moving back to New Orleans and an attempt to avoid having to clean anything up.
A question of arsenic
Solomon said arsenic levels are high all over the New Orleans area. Some groups are calling for soil removal in hotspots.
DEQ’s Harris said the higher levels his agency found were almost exclusively from samples taken from golf courses, where arsenic-containing pesticides are used.
Harris said Louisiana’s background level for arsenic is 12 parts per million. Even though that might be above EPA standards, people were likely living with those levels before the storm, he said.
“Even potting soil you bring home can have 100 parts per million of arsenic in it,” said June Sutherlin, a DEQ toxicologist.
Some people note that even if the post-Katrina contamination isn’t worse than what existed before the flooding, people still need to know what dangers they face.
Pardue noted that much of New Orleans had lead levels above residential standards before the storm. That doesn’t mean the results should be ignored, he said.
He said this question still remains: Should areas with higher arsenic and lead be cleaned up before rebuilding?
If it’s not feasible to clean to residential standards, people should be told of the long-term risks associated with returning — even if the contamination existed before the storm, Pardue said.
McDaniel said DEQ has been under no pressure to minimize the dangers. He said the department’s information is corroborated by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a long list of other agencies.
“Our pressure is to get the facts out,” he said.