Nov. 22, 2005 – Airborne contaminant levels are dangerously high in New Orleans, posing a potential health risk to workers and returning residents, according to publicly released air quality tests conducted in the storm-ravaged city.
The tests, conducted by a team of environmental groups, measured mold and particulate matter â€“ like soot, dust and other sediment â€“ in a number of previously flooded areas of the city. In a statement released last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the groups, which include NRDC and several local organizations, charge that the federal government is "neglecting a major safety threat affecting thousands of people both indoors and out."
"The federal government is falling down on the job by not addressing the public health impacts from mold," Advocates for Environmental Human Rights (AEHR) co-Director Monique Hardin said in the statement. "Federal officials can and should be telling people whether it's safe to return to their homes. They can and should provide respirators and protective equipment to returning residents and workers. They can even bar people from re-entering dangerous areas or order clean-ups."
According to the tests, mold spore levels are extraordinarily high inside and outside in areas where the flooding was worst. Even areas removed from flooded zones showed elevated mold levels, the report found.
In addition, air tests showed "notable differences" in the amount of particulates and bacterial toxins, or endotoxins, in the air near previously flooded areas and those away from the worst of the hurricane damage.
Endotoxin levels are not government regulated, but many particulates, including cancer-causing polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are. According the NRDC-led study, PAHs, arsenic and petroleum chemicals still pollute the air in many New Orleans residential areas.
The environmental groups expressed concern over all the airborne contaminants measured, but were most distraught over the mold spore levels, which have been linked to asthma and other respiratory ailments by a number of organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences.
Despite the fact that a growing body of medical experts consider mold a health hazard, there are currently no federal regulations on allowable levels, though the US Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) both offer recommendations and information on potential negative effects of mold exposure.
According to the CDC, mold spores often affect mucus membranes and can cause respiratory infections in extreme cases. People with allergies and compromised immune systems are especially at risk, the CDC and other government health agencies warn.
Earlier government studies of pollution in New Orleans conducted shortly after Hurricane Katrina showed abnormally high levels of toxins in the flood waters but remained incomplete, as The NewStandard reported previously. Other news accounts showed that petroleum chemicals, sewage and other dangerous chemicals and waste were ubiquitous.
Amid the September news and government reports, AEHR called on Congress to enact legislation forcing companies that deal with dangerous chemicals to secure the matter against both natural and man-made disasters. The group is also seeking a ban on placing chemical facilities near schools and residential neighborhoods as the city is rebuilt.