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Petroleum, Bacteria Are Primary Pollutants

EPA analyzes sediments, air in New Orleans

by Cheryl Hogue
September 19, 2005

Petroleum compounds and fecal bacteria are the main contaminants in the muck coating the parts of New Orleans flooded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Sept. 16.

People may be at some health risk from the tainted sediments deposited by the receding floodwaters, EPA said. The agency noted that there are no standards for determining human health risks from the presence of fecal bacteria, including Escherichia coli, in sediment or soil. Such standards only exist for water.

The agency’s testing also showed elevated levels of semivolatile compounds, such as diesel and fuel oils, in the sediment. EPA said skin contact with these materials may cause irritation.

EPA and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention strongly recommend that those who come in contact with the muck wash with soap and water, if available, and remove contaminated clothing.

EPA also analyzed 18 sediment samples for volatile organic compounds, metals, and pesticides. Aside from three samples with slightly elevated levels of arsenic and lead, the testing found concentrations of these pollutants below levels expected to cause health effects, according to the agency.

As the city dries out, EPA will monitor potential risks from inhaling airborne particles of the sediment.

In addition, the agency analyzed air in New Orleans for volatile organic pollutants including the gasoline components benzene, toluene, and xylene. EPA said air concentrations of these chemicals in most areas are below the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry’s health standards of concern. Somewhat higher levels of benzene and toluene were found in the air near a major oil spill at a Murphy Oil facility on the Mississippi River.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard announced that it is responding to four major oil spills of more than 100,000 gal caused by Katrina along the Mississippi River. Responders are also cleaning up five oil spills of between 10,000 and 100,000 gal in Louisiana, the Coast Guard said.



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