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Updated: EPA and CDC Report High Levels of Bacterial Contamination in Preliminary Floodwater Samples from New Orleans

Release Date: 09/08/2005
Contact Information:

This advisory updates the original issued on September 7, 2005.

Contact: Eryn Witcher, 202-564-4355 / witcher.eryn@epa.gov

Floodwaters from six locations across the New Orleans area were sampled by EPA and analyzed for chemicals and bacteria. These initial results represent the beginning of extensive sampling efforts and do not represent the condition of all flood waters throughout the area. Preliminary information indicates that bacteria counts for E. coli in sampled areas greatly exceed EPA’s recommended levels for contact. At these levels, human contact with water should be avoided as much as possible.

Chemical sampling was performed for over one hundred priority pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), semivolatile organic compounds (SVOCs), total metals, pesticides, herbicides, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Results from these analyses were compared to various Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and EPA health levels. Lead concentrations in flood water exceeded drinking water action levels. These measured levels are a concern if flood water were to be a child’s source of drinking water. For the other chemicals tested, we have yet to detect contaminant levels that would exceed the EPA and ATSDR health levels. Due to the priority of the search and rescue mission, EPA testing has occurred in several highly populated residential neighborhoods and not yet in heavily industrialized areas.

Given these preliminary results, emergency response personnel and the public should avoid direct contact with standing water when possible. In the event contact occurs, EPA and CDC strongly advise the use of soap and water to clean exposed areas if available. Flood water should not be swallowed and all mouth contact should be minimized and avoided where possible. People should immediately report any symptoms to health professionals. The most likely symptoms of ingestion of flood water contaminated with bacteria are stomach-ache, fever, vomiting and diarrhea. Also, people can become ill if they have an open cut, wound, or abrasion that comes into contact with water contaminated with certain organisms. One may experience fever, redness, and swelling at the site of the infection and should see a doctor right away if possible.

Additional information regarding health and safety issues for both the public and emergency responders can be found on the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website (http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/hurricanes/index.asp) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) website (http://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/hurricaneRecovery.html).

Preliminary flood water testing data will be confirmed through additional EPA testing and data analyses to ensure high quality. EPA is implementing a scientific process to ensure that the flood waters of New Orleans are thoroughly sampled for multiple types of key contaminants as appropriate. EPA is actively coordinating all sampling activities and data analyses with federal, state, and local agencies.

For additional EPA information, go to: http://www.epa.gov/katrina