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Wading into an E. coli stew

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Wading into an E. coli stew


My memory is muddy, what's this river I'm in

New Orleans is sinking and I don't want to swim.

— "New Orleans is Sinking," The Tragically Hip

They swam, they dogpaddled, they floated, they waded.

Up to the knees, the waist, the chest and above the head.

In abyssal New Orleans, there was no escape from water. It deluged homes, lapped at rooftops, turned streets into channels, fire escapes into cataracts and entire neighbourhoods into lagoons.

It engulfed and drowned.

It seeped into one's pores, sloshed over the top of hip-waders, splashed into every body cavity, penetrated surface skin cuts and abrasions, introducing an unspeakable scramble of bacterial contaminants into the system.

Neither newspaper reports nor TV footage can accurately capture the ugliness of that water: brown, brackish, greasy, infused with feces and sewage, the carcasses of dead animals and bloated human remains. Reeking so strongly of oil, chemicals and rotting garbage that it stung the eyes, made the throat contract and gag.

The salt of Lake Pontchartrain — actually an inlet bay connected to the Gulf of Mexico — mixing with the salt of tears.

Every night during the time I spent in New Orleans, before relief convoys arrived, I used a facecloth and precious bottle of spring water (looted) to scrub my feet, applying antibiotic ointment (looted) on the scrapes and rashes and weird boils that resulted from wading shoeless in the bilge. Shoeless because both sandals and sneakers had quickly shredded with immersion.

This — the stuff that eats leather and canvas — is what people were living in, struggling through, in search of food and potable water, those who either stayed by stubborn choice or lacked the wherewithal to leave when levees were breached; Lake Pontchartrain surging over the pitifully feeble buffer, natural barriers and sponging wetlands destroyed long ago by coastal development and sluicing designed to protect ships.

Even now, three weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck and with 22 repaired pumping stations suctioning millions of gallons a day out of the city — 40 per cent of which remains submerged — the dangers contained in that water have not subsided. And the sediment, the sludge, the "bacterial soup" left behind in a metropolis rendered a massive, pestilent, disease-breeding swamp, might actually be even more toxic than the receding floodwaters that are dropping by about 30 centimetres a day.

The relatively rapid dehydrating of New Orleans is in itself remarkable, given that there is no natural egress for water. Every drop of rain that falls on the city either evaporates or must be pumped out.

New Orleans is methodically wringing itself dry and should emerge completely from its subaqueous state within a fortnight.

But the health effects of an ocean of dirty water are only beginning to be fathomed. Some symptoms arising from contamination — even simple contact with poisonous water, not the drinking of it, which killed countless abandoned dogs — can take two weeks to appear.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — a department that, under the Bush administration, is dimly viewed by many environmentalists — has been taking daily water samples at sites in and around New Orleans, testing for biological pathogens and more than 100 chemical pollutants, including pesticides, industrial chemicals and metals.

Sewage-related bacteria and lead from "unknown sources" are just two of the contaminants found to be at wildly elevated levels thus far. The cistern that New Orleans has become is rife with Staphylococcus aureas (staph) and E. coli, though not, as far as can be determined to this point, the more lethal E. coli strain (O517, enterohemorrhagic) that "contributed" to the deaths of six people in Walkerton, when that Ontario town's water supply became contaminated five years ago.

The Star brought back five water samples from New Orleans — scooped up at city hall, the Iberville projects and points along Canal St. — for testing at a Toronto lab.

The results found E. coli levels between 5,600 and 42,000 per 100 ml of water and staph levels ranging from 9,800 to 32,000 per 100 ml of water.

These findings are consistent with results released by the EPA, which reports that E. coli levels remain "much higher" than its own recommended levels "for direct contact."

To put the results in more significant context, it should be noted that Toronto's board of health posts no-swimming advisories for the city's public beaches when E. coli levels reach 100 per 100 ml because of the health risk.

To repeat, in New Orleans — as determined by the Toronto lab analysis — those levels are far above 40,000.

Even using the EPA's own guidelines, the floodwaters in New Orleans contain E. coli and other coliform bacteria up to 109 times its safe swimming limit.

Most vulnerable are children because their immune systems are still developing. This would suggest dangers far more pronounced than the EPA has been indicating.

Yet the agency maintains that the amounts of chemicals and bacteria found in the water would pose a substantial risk to children only if they were to drink a litre of floodwater every day.

There is no keen sense of urgency in the reports the EPA is posting almost daily on its website. In fact, its assessments seemed designed to assure rather than alarm, although the agency admits it hasn't tested for — and has no immediate intention to test for —the most lethal pathogens, such as vibrio cholera, Shigella, E. coli 0157 or Salmonella, because "it would not be useful at this time."

Explaining this decision, the EPA argues that these pathogens would be difficult to grow in the laboratory, "especially in highly contaminated water surfaces"; that one pathogen "will not predict" the risk from other pathogens; that finding pathogens in standing water will not affect how "imminent risk" is presented to the public or "how decisions are made"; and that wastewater from a large population "is expected to contain enteric pathogens, therefore, identifying the presence of fecally contaminated water will give a broader risk perspective than detecting specific pathogens."

The impenetrable language is as murky as the water in a city where nothing clean is yet coming out of the taps. What it boils down to — and boiling does not remove chemical pollutants from water, by the way — is, I think, that the potential findings of tests for the really bad pathogens might present a skewed picture of the real dangers and cause unnecessary panic.

In sum, the water must not be ingested — and who would, save for the sorry animals? Nor should it be used for bathing because that could bring on abdominal cramps, fever, vomiting and diarrhea. Contact with an open wound or abrasion can cause fever, redness and swelling.

"See a doctor right away if possible," the advisory suggests.

Oh, that's useful.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also on the ground, and has for the past three weeks been administering tetanus shots. (The EPA contends that mass inoculation is not required, although its own staffers are injected for tetanus and the like before hitting the ground.)

Infectious disease experts warn of health outcomes that routinely arise from any hurricane: hepatitis A, diarrhea and intestinal problems caused by drinking polluted water or eating spoiled food, and infections from open cuts.

The morass of New Orleans and environs also presents an ideal breeding ground for dysentery and such mosquito-borne diseases as West Nile fever, which is why military aircraft were spraying the city for mosquitoes last week — another laggard response to the catastrophe.

Further, humans need to worry about bites from rats and venomous snakes indigenous to the area, such as water moccasins and cottonmouths, which might easily be swimming in the wards adjacent to more rural areas.

What's known is that five people have died from post-Katrina contact with bacteria-infested seawater — specifically Vibrio vulnificus, which can be lethal to those already suffering from immune deficiencies, including AIDS patients and those on dialysis. Oddly, none of those casualties were in Louisiana. Four deaths occurred in Mississippi and one individual died after being evacuated to Texas.

Another major concern, as the water drains, is the contamination that can arise from mould.

There are still gas leaks that crews haven't been able to cap because the sources are underwater. Officials are warning of gas explosions and carbon monoxide poisoning from improper use of generators.

Decaying hazardous chemicals can also be tossed into the malevolent mix of emerging dangers.

There are at least five oil spills in the New Orleans area and 121 sites with known chemical contamination. At minimum, three of the city's poisonous "Superfund sites" — meaning they made the list of the nation's worst toxic sites — were flooded, including a landfill where residents dumped garbage for decades. That one remains underwater and inaccessible.

Hazardous waste railcars — like the freight train that derailed and forced an evacuation of Mississauga in 1979 — still lie submerged.

Sediment samples — contaminants from the polluted water settling into the soil — have been difficult to analyze because they're so laden with petroleum products.

"We are still in the early days of going around and visually inspecting," EPA administrator Stephen Johnson told reporters a few days ago. "We will then begin to do a more detailed analysis."

The water — and the muck it's leaving behind — contains lead from paint and batteries; officials aren't even certain of the oozing sources. High levels of hexavalent chromium, which is used in industrial plating, and arsenic, used in treating wood, have also been found, the EPA reports.

Five thousand of what those in the business call "orphan containers" — barrels of medical waste, gas cylinders, petroleum byproducts intended for safe elimination — have been recovered so far, Johnson said on Wednesday.

Human waste, animal waste, factory waste: all of it stirred into a noxious cocktail.

Two decades ago, New Orleans — a city awash in booze and most famous for its Hurricane rum concoction — took first place in the annual Drinking Water Test Challenge held by the American Water Works Association.

Now, you can't even wash away the dirt with it.


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trying to find something useful or constructive in there... hmmm...

I could complain all day too without doing anything constructive I guess if I wanted to. Can cut the negativity with a knife.

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Yeah...we're not out of the 'water' yet... blink.gif

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