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           Katrina's Aftermath Archives         Katrina's Aftermath [Home]
Neck Deep in Toxic Gumbo
(Nicole Makris, AlterNet, September 16, 2005)
Dead body in New Orleans
As the government drags its feet, the unknown number of human bodies decomposing in the New Orleans floodwaters are becoming hosts for a horde of diseases. The bodies continue to fester and rot, potentially contaminating the city they used to call home. . . . Mike Leavitt has declared a public health emergency for the entire Gulf region, where bacteria and viruses are the most immediate threat to rescue personnel and residents, caused in no small part by all the hurricane's decomposing victims. . . . The Centers for Disease Control has reported four fatal instances of vibrio vulnificus, a cousin of cholera. Red Cross and other relief workers are struggling to prevent outbreaks related to salmonella, e. coli and other bacteria that cause nausea, diarrhea, and can lead to severe dehydration. There is also cause to fear the spread of hepatitis A, a virus that causes liver disease. But a real plan to assess the health problems that could plague the Gulf Coast for decades is noticeably absent. . . . "Virtually anything could be in the water," said Jim Elder, the EPA's former National Director of Drinking Water and Groundwater. "I'm not sure that anywhere has ever seen all these chemicals put together in the same place. That's why people are referring to this as a toxic soup. I think that's a simple but apt description." . . . Elder says the many heavy industries based in Louisiana have been leaching chemicals into the soil and groundwater for decades. But Katrina stirred up an even deadlier mix of waste: submerged automobiles are leaking oil, gasoline and other chemicals into the floodwater; asbestos that may have been contained in old buildings has been released by the flooding and the collapse of buildings; raw sewage, decaying body parts, offshore oil rigs and possibly ruptured pipelines all pave the way for a myriad of serious and potentially fatal medical conditions. . . . Given the government's already shoddy response to the disaster in Louisiana and Mississippi, Kaufman's concerns should raise many alarms. Where the World Trade Center became a deathtrap of poisonous chemicals, at least the site was relatively safe before the towers came down. Louisiana, however, has long been one of the country's most polluted areas. . . . The ongoing pollution of Louisiana's air, water and soil by oil refineries, hazardous waste, and whatever else has been dumped into the Mississippi River over the years have given the 85-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans the nickname "Cancer Alley." . . . According to the U.S. Census, about 1 in 10 Americans live below the poverty line. In New Orleans, that number is closer to 1 in 4. According to Beverly Wright, director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Xavier University, Louisiana has the largest share of the nation's impoverished children, and about half of the children in New Orleans live at or below the poverty line. . . . Robert Bullard, a pioneering activist in the environmental justice movement, said it's no coincidence that Cancer Alley happens to belch its chemicals into black neighborhoods. . . . The CDC reports that the national average of cancer deaths per 10,000 people is 199.8. In Louisiana, the number is 230.4. The state's cancer mortality rate ranked second highest in the nation in 2003. And African Americans are more likely than whites to have and die from lung, colorectal, breast and prostate cancers -- all which have been linked to prolonged chemical exposure. . . . "People will more readily come back, and will try to clean their homes or porches. And they'll have toxic dust they'll be sweeping around. An they'll inhale it and ingest it. ... If there's no clean-up you have basically people living and trying to clean in the middle of the country's largest Superfund site." . . . "Depending on the type of contamination, we could see every medical illness you can think of," Elder said. "Cancer of any type -- bladder, kidney, intestinal, lung, brain, skin cancer. ... The EPA has a list of regulated drinking water contaminants and what the health effects are of exceeding the standards. You can pick any one of those chemicals, and each of them could be present in the Gulf Coast area right now." . . . Even worse, the combined effects of all these chemicals is completely unknown. "You're gonna have so many of these chemicals interacting, and most of these chemicals have only been tested one at a time," Elder said. "They have never looked at the synergistic effect of all these chemicals on human health." . . . Kaufman believes it's just not a safe place to go home to yet. "Little kids walk around and get dirt in their mouths from their hands," he continued. "And it's not just New Orleans. It's all the areas where there were releases of hazardous material and sewage. The water being pumped out of New Orleans is now spreading that to Lake Ponchartrain, the Mississippi, and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. It's expanding the area of contamination." . . . Elder and Kaufman maintain that it could, and should, take years to make the area inhabitable again. Some areas could be inhabitable sooner, but what is important, they say, is to make sure that every effected area is tested for contamination. "Based on Love Canal, it will take a minimum of 10 years to do the monitoring and cleanup," Kaufman said. . . . "There needs to be a well-coordinated, well-thought-out strategy as to how this is going to be tracked, assessed, evaluated and proper decisions made," Elder said. . . . With the tragedy of Katrina behind them, the most responsible thing to do for the people of the Gulf Coast is to ensure that the many potential health hazards are avoided. The city of New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast region, must demand a full-fledged clean up, stress Bullard and Dr. Wright. . . . "History has shown us that oftentimes if a community is poor and happens to be a community of color, it has to fight for things that most white people take for granted," said Bullard. "We're gonna have to make sure ... that we address environmental conditions within that particular community, and treat it as if the president of the United States lived next door."

posted by Lorenzo 10:32 AM

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