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Tests Find High Levels of Lead, Bacteria in New Orleans Flood Water

Samples of New Orleans floodwaters show that it contains high levels of lead and of bacteria associated with raw sewage. U.S. environmental authorities are warning against direct skin contact with the water and say it will not be safe for drinking for a long time.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says its initial testing in New Orleans waters shows very high concentrations of lead and of E. coli and coliform bacteria. Agency administrator Stephen Johnson says the concentrations far exceed not only healthy limits, but also the limits of current tests to measure their true levels.

"In every single one of our samples, they hit the maximum. So our testing showed that each one exceeded ten times what would be safe,” he noted. “It's a major health concern. It's the maximum of the tests that we performed, and that's not good, and that's why you need to avoid contact as much as possible with the water."

Mr. Johnson says the initial water testing in New Orleans looked only for bacteria and more than 100 chemicals, such as pesticides and metals. The head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Julie Gerberding, says the good news is that the tests have not turned up compounds other than lead in the putrid water. She also notes that these first tests took place only in flooded residential neighborhoods, and that officials will learn more from subsequent tests in industrial areas. Stephen Johnson says his agency's workers have seen floating gasoline slicks, which they will soon evaluate.

Even without chemicals, Dr. Gerberding says New Orleans' fetid water is unsafe for the people who have not yet evacuated the city. She urges rescue workers to wear protective clothing.

"The results indicate that the water is full of sewage. We know that there are many common intestinal illnesses that can be transmitted by ingesting this sewage and in some cases by being in the water with these organisms in it without protective clothing,” she noted. “This water is not going away anytime soon, even though it is beginning to recede and we have more work to do to get back to a state of safe drinking water and a safe community."

The U.S. environmental official, Mr. Johnson, says his agency is also testing water in hurricane-ravaged areas of Mississippi and Alabama.

Even when floodwaters recede, contamination is expected to persist. The dirty New Orleans water is being pumped back slowly to the city's Lake Pontchartrain, where barriers overwhelmed by the storm broke and caused the flooding. A spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York, Erik Olsen, says the lake's water can be skimmed or cleaned by other means, but toxic residue can remain in the sediments below.

"If there is significant discharge of persistent chemicals or of heavy metals, that can settle into the sediments, which can be re-stirred up every time there is a big storm or dredging or construction activity,” said Mr. Olsen. “That can re-suspend the sediments and cause re-contamination."

Even worse, the pollution runoff could poison the Gulf of Mexico, whose fisheries are already threatened by chemical runoff from Midwestern U.S. farms. Mr. Olsen speaks of a dead zone in the Gulf, where algae blooms and oxygen is depleted.

"That already exists, and as we see more and more of this raw sewage and runoff and toxic chemicals just coming in a huge wallop all at once, we could exacerbate that dead zone and the fisheries could suffer long term losses," he added.

U.S. health and environmental officials acknowledge the potential long term impact of pollution from southeastern coastal areas, but say that their short term focus is protecting the health of evacuees and those still remaining in flooded areas