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Gulf Coast Sludge Is Poisonous, Tests Show

by Julia Spurzem

First New Orleans Air Tests Show Dangerous Levels Of Mold

(IPS) NEW YORK -- Soil analyses released by the Sierra Club this week reveal high levels of arsenic and other heavy metals at nearly every location tested in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi following the severe floods unleashed by Hurricane Katrina in August.

The highest arsenic levels were found at the Bay Bridge in Alabama, with results 100 times higher than the safe limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Arsenic can cause severe health problems, including irritation of the stomach and intestines, blood vessel damage, skin changes and reduced nerve function.

"We will have acute consequences," predicted Peter L. deFur, an expert with Environmental Stewardship Concepts, a Virginia-based consultancy group that has been involved in similar assessments.

DeFur said there would likely be short-term health problems like skin infections and respiratory problems, as well as long-term consequences, especially for young children and clean-up workers. Recent studies have drawn connections between extended exposure to arsenic and lower IQ scores.

The soil tests were conducted at 33 locations in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, focusing on sediment transported by the storm surge. The data was collected and analyzed for the Sierra Club, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, the Altman Foundation and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Of the 33 sites, 19 were in Louisiana, 10 were in Mississippi, and four were in Alabama. The sampling took place at the end of September and the beginning of October.

Wilma Subra, an environmental consultant and chemist who performed the testing, said, "The action of the winds and waves of the hurricane brought contaminated sediments from water bodies onto the land. The arsenic is a combination of industrial discharges, (agricultural) runoff, and ongoing industrial discharging."

In addition to arsenic, Subra found other toxic chemicals including barium, chromium, lead and mercury. One site contained cadmium and selenium. In addition, Subra found very elevated levels of bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella, staphylococcus, yeast and mold in many areas.

E. coli and salmonella are bacteria that can contaminate food and cause symptoms such as vomiting and fever, sometimes leading to death. Staphylococcus causes sore throats and skin infections. The highest levels of E. coli, salmonella staphylococcus, yeast and mold in Mississippi were found in Moss Point, D'Iberville and Big Lake.

Subra is concerned that little is being done to clean up the chemicals, and says it is not enough just to wait for rain.

"The sludge was dry, but the organisms were still viable," Subra said. "Some of the feeling on part of the governmental agencies is once the sludge dries up, the organisms are dead. But that isn't the case here. When people are out walking in their yards and streets, they are inhaling these particles that contain microorganisms that are still viable."

The only solution would be to remove the sludge, "whoever does it," she said.

Subra said her test results were consistent with those found by the EPA, but she had a different interpretation of those results. "The EPA has stated they do not feel there is an acute impact with this sludge," she said. "They have no evaluation of the chronic impact."

One of the testing sites was the DeLisle Elementary school in Harrison County, Miss., which had arsenic levels 2.3 times above the EPA limit. Subra also detected barium, chromium, lead and mercury in a layer of sludge that was not present before the hurricane. Although the concentration of those heavy metals was not above EPA limits, they "add to the cumulative impact of the toxic substances," she said.

The school is near a DuPont chemical plant that was inundated with up to nine feet of water during the storm surge. Since other elementary, middle school and high schools in this area were damaged or destroyed by Katrina, DeLisle Elementary now houses many of the students from other schools. Most of the 1,200 students are taught in portable classrooms.

Dita McCarthy, whose daughter is a 10th-grader who moved to DeLisle Elementary's grounds after the storm destroyed her school, said she was concerned after hearing the test results.

"They are not in one trailer," she said. "They move between trailers. They are constantly breathing in this circulating dust. This really points out that we need more testing around the school."

So far, the EPA has not done any testing at the DuPont plant itself or at the schools and residences nearby.

However, the agency has tested sediments at more than 430 sites in the New Orleans area alone, and says the levels of heavy metals, in most cases, were "similar to the historical levels found in these parishes before Katrina and to other urban areas throughout the nation."

Still, the Sierra Club recommends that air conditioning filters inside schools that have not been replaced since Katrina be analyzed and replaced with new ones.

Experts at the Louisiana Environmental Action Network also say that residents returning to these neighborhoods avoid contact with the layer of contaminated sludge and caution seniors, small children and pregnant women to stay away from these areas entirely. They say that returning residents should be given recovery kits that include Tyvek suits, respirators, gloves, smocks and other protective equipment.

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Albion Monitor December 7, 2005 (

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