Six New Orleans Schoolyards Contaminated With Arsenic

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, August 27, 2007 (ENS) - Six New Orleans schoolyards tested after Hurricane Katrina were found to be contaminated with arsenic in amounts at least double the levels requiring cleanup under both state and federal law, finds a report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, but state and federal environmental agencies have done nothing to clean them up.

In March, NRDC researchers sampled 116 residential, elementary school, and playground sites in New Orleans.

Results showed that six of the 19 schoolyards tested contained soil that exceeded cleanup guidelines for arsenic established by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, LDEQ, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. Two playgrounds and four residential areas also .

The schools that tested high in arsenic, in order of high to lower levels of contamination, are - McDonogh Elementary (#42) in the Mid-City area; John Dibert Elementary School in Mid-City; Drew Elementary in Bywater/St.Claude; Craig Elementary in Mid-City; Medard H. Nelson Elementary in the Uptown/Carrollton area; and McMain Magnet Secondary School in Uptown/Carrollton.

John Dibert Elementary School in New Orleans tested high in arsenic levels. (Photo courtesy John Dibert Elementary)
On first learning of the test results in June, the NRDC says it immediately informed both state and federal agencies. But with school now back in session, neither agency has taken any measures to protect students.

Both LDEQ and EPA responded to the June warning with letters stating that they are not authorized to move forward on clean-up or a site assessment unless the schools can prove that Hurricane Katrina was the cause of the contaminated sediment.

The NRDC says it has learned that LDEQ recently conducted sampling at four of the six schoolyards with contaminated soil, after the school year began, but the state agency has not made the results of these tests public.

"Families who have chosen to return to rebuild their communities shouldn't have to worry that their children are playing in schoolyards contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals," said Gina Solomon, MD, a senior scientist with NRDC and a co-author of the report. "State and federal agencies are ducking their legal and moral responsibility to the people of New Orleans."

Health experts at NRDC and local groups say the arsenic contamination was left behind in the layers of sediment coating much of the city in the wake of Katrina's flooding.

They say the recommended solution in most cases is to remove and replace the first six inches of contaminated soil. Sampling should also be done at more locations around the city to make sure that other contaminated sites have not been missed, say the national and local environmental groups.

"There is no justification for allowing arsenic to be anywhere near residents or children," said Wilma Subra, a chemist for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. "Now that we know the film of sediment covering parts of New Orleans contains high levels of arsenic, we need our government to take action and clean it up."

LDEQ officials have argued that the contamination predated the August 29, 2005 storm.

But NRDC says its researchers crosschecked samples from 63 locations in residential areas throughout the city against samples collected before the storm, and confirmed that before Katrina, arsenic was not a problem in most of them.

"There is strong evidence to prove Hurricane Katrina exacerbated arsenic levels throughout the city," said Al Huang, environmental justice attorney for NRDC, and a co-author of the report. "Regardless of the cause, there are children being exposed to arsenic today, and it is the duty of our government to right that wrong."

The arsenic found in this sediment could have originated from multiple sources, including the accumulation of arsenic-based pesticides displaced from the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain, trash incineration, leakage from industrial sites, or lumber treated with chromium-copper arsenate.

Since Katrina, neither the LDEQ nor the EPA has conducted a cleanup of contaminated sediment.

Arsenic is toxic to humans, and is known to cause cancer, birth defects, cardiovascular disease and neurological disorders. No amount of arsenic exposure is considered fully safe.

Soil contaminated with arsenic can be inhaled when the dirt is moved. It can also enter the body through the eyes or mouth. Children are particularly vulnerable.

"The testing shows that our children are being exposed to dangerously high levels of arsenic," said Beverly Wright, Director of Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.

"It is the government's responsibility to provide clean and healthy schools for our children, and it is their duty and moral obligation to help this city get back on its feet," Wright said. "In the meantime, community-based projects will continue to do the hard work of cleaning up our own neighborhoods block-by-block."

The report was prepared by NRDC's experts on health and environmental justice and is available online.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.