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Report: Safeguarding Public Health
Looking Forward After Katrina
Hurricane Katrina was the worst natural disaster to strike our country in its history. Hundreds of people have lost their lives, and the devastation to the regions in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida is difficult to fathom. As the rebuilding begins in these areas, we need to ensure that more people are not harmed by taking a close look at the environmental health risks left behind.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, some Gulf Coast residents found themselves up to their shoulders in water filled with sewage and toxic chemicals. Up to 80% of New Orleans was covered in contaminated water, and other cities including Biloxi, Mississippi were flooded by storm surges. Almost immediately after the floodwaters began to rise, people familiar with New Orleans and the surrounding industrial area began sounding alarm bells that this liquid covering New Orleans was not just water, but a “toxic gumbo.”
Initial testing by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found elevated bacteria and lead levels, as well as some amounts of long-banned pesticides in the water. Some officials tried to downplay the potential health threat while warning those in New Orleans not to expose themselves to the floodwater.
Soon after the disaster, EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) formed the Environmental Health Needs Assessment and Habitability Taskforce (EH-NAHT) in order to identify the “overarching environmental health issues faced by New Orleans to re-inhabit the city.”1 This task force identified 13 issues dealing with environmental health and infrastructure that local, state, and federal officials will have to address. In each issue area, the task force laid out the current situation, possible barriers for progress, and decisions that must be made.
The toxic water and sludge left in Katrina’s wake are a major cause for concern. Over the next several months, government agencies such as EPA, the Coast Guard, the CDC, and state and local officials will be working to clean up this disaster. Throughout the process, these government officials must guarantee workers’ and evacuees’ right to know about the toxic chemicals found in the air, soil, and water and ensure that all cleanup is completed to the highest possible health standard.
We have developed a quick snapshot of some of the environmental health problems in the wake of the hurricane, as well as recommendations for governmental officials to take into account as they move forward.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Environmental Health Needs and Habitability Assessment Joint Taskforce Initial Assessment,” downloaded from http://www.epa.gov/katrina/reports/envneeds_hab_assessment.pdf, September 17, 2005.
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