You may be wondering about the results of the environmental testing resulting from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Well, the results are in, and they're not necessarily good. The USEPA has posted sediment results here, with general information by spill here, and air sampling data here (levels shouldn't be over 40 micrograms per cubic meter for sensitive people and 65 for the general population), and here for Superfund sites.
There is some good news in that the results are not widespread, but apparently confined to particular areas. The bad news is that the areas span some four states.
Here's what the USEPA found in the dirt in several areas: "petroleum, as well as volatiles, semivolatiles, including polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), pesticides and heavy metals including aluminum. [The US]EPA ... believe[s] that exposures at these levels to emergency responders are not expected to cause adverse health effects as long as the proper protective equipment such as gloves and safety glasses is worn. [US]EPA ... continue[s] to recommend that residents avoid all contact with sediment deposited by the flood water, where possible, due to potential concerns associated with long-term skin contact."
For the air the USEPA "recognizes that the situation in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast is unique."
Groundwater sampling was not much better near one Superfund site: the USEPA "detected arsenic and chromium above their respective drinking water standards."
In other words, stay out of the dirt and don't let your kids play outside, and don't drink the water. The USEPA's advice reminds me of the "duck and cover" campaign of the 50's to protect yourself from a nuclear explosion.
Rarely have we experienced these types of contaminants in residential areas on such a wide scale. Decontamination will be difficult at best because of the pervasive nature of the sediment spread in areas affected by flooding. Water cleanup can be handled in the normal manner (which will still be expensive), but for the time being, not even boiling water will solve the problem. Air pollution will dissipate over time, but given the amount of contaminants in the topsoil, there will be some transference to the air as the dirt is disturbed for cleanup. Most people won't even know about their exposure.
The most difficult aspect of the cleanup will be paying for it. Hurricanes are an act of God, which is an exception to most of the federal toxic contamination statutes, so the USEPA won't be able to name business as potentially responsible parties where the contaminants were released from. Insurance companies, as a consequence, will be likewise able to avoid liability. The only source of funds for the cleanup, therefore, is your and my tax dollars. When you look at these sampling results posted by the USEPA and realize that they're spread out over Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama, the additional cost caused by the Hurricanes becomes mind-boggling. The USEPA didn't offer any cost estimates, and I won't either, but I can imagine.