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Toss out the New Orleans "toxic soup" myth

By Michael Fumento
web posted February 6, 2006

Time was when the mention of Louisiana's culinary delights brought to mind such fare as the "jambalaya, a-crawfish pie and-a fillet [a] gumbo" that Hank Williams sang of. But if you believe the media and environmentalists, after Hurricane Katrina hit in August it seemed the only item on the menu was "toxic soup."

Google "Katrina" and "toxic soup" and you'll get about 25,000 hits. To a lesser extent you'll find mentions of such culinary delights as "toxic sediments," "toxic dust," and "toxic air."

There are many recipes for toxic soup, but they generally comprise some combination of fecal coliform, industrial chemicals such as brominated flame retardants (PBDEs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), petroleum byproducts such as benzene, and such metals as copper, lead, zinc and arsenic.

These contaminants entered the flood waters in various ways, such as when over 500 sewage plants were damaged, and when refineries and chemical-processing plants were flooded.

You may recall TV commentators gasping as rescue workers exited their boats and waded into this "soup," as if mere contact would melt you faster than the Wicked Witch of the West. As Mike D. McDaniel, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality in Baton Rouge, observed back then, "To say it's toxic, it sounds like instant death walking in it."

He knew that nearly all the "soup" ingredients must be ingested and ingested in large quantities to cause harm – assuming they cause harm at all. Many Americans pay to consume large amounts of copper and zinc in supplements.

Further, both the amounts of the contaminants and their dangers were grossly exaggerated.

New Orleans floodwater after the deluge was "typical of storm water runoff in the region," according to a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology in October. There was little evidence of "elevated concentrations of toxic pollutants."

McDaniel is fed up enough with toxic soup talk that he's sent out a letter to newspapers requesting the term be removed from reporters' and environmentalists' menus, as well as the related toxic dishes.

"Alarmists," McDaniel writes in his letter, "announced we were killing Lake Pontchartrain by pumping the floodwaters back into the lake. Extensive testing shows no adverse effect on the lake's ecosystem. Water quality is good and bacteria levels are below the most stringent water quality standards established for swimming. Sampling by state and federal agencies show seafood in the lake, estuaries and surrounding coastal areas is safe for consumption.

Indeed, the Environmental Science and Technology study said that the main potential hazard was to fish, but there was no evidence of fish kills in Lake Pontchartrain.

Testing by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just two weeks after the hurricane found "no elevated exposure to contaminants related to oil" in Gulf of Mexico fish or shellfish. NOAA shortly thereafter reported no human or animal fecal contamination and declared "PCBs, pesticides and fire retardants" in the creatures were "well below federal guidelines for safe seafood consumption."

As to "toxic sediments," McDaniel notes that "Hundreds of samples and thousands of chemical analyses have documented over the past several months that, with a few notable exceptions, the chemistry of soils and sediments is little changed from pre-Katrina conditions."

Toxic dust? "Extensive chemical analyses of dust particles collected in the New Orleans area over recent months have shown no exceedances of standards established to protect public health," observes McDaniel. "Another false alarm."

Contaminated air? Writes McDaniel, "All of the ambient air sampling results collected to date are typical for this region of the state and are below any levels of health concern."

So why's this guy spoiling all the fun?

"Scaremongering by alarmists and the media coverage they receive has created unnecessary anxiety for those displaced by the storm and who are trying to decide if they can safely return," McDaniel writes. "Having to respond to inaccurate, misleading and often outrageous claims diverts resources from environmental and public health agencies that are already stretched extremely thin in hurricane recovery efforts."

Sounds like somebody out there should be cleaning up their act.

Michael Fumento is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and an associate of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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