A whistleblower with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said that water is being pumped out of the flooded city in a way that increases the danger to human health. Hugh Kaufman, a 35-year EPA veteran and an expert on toxic waste and responses to environmental disasters Ñ and a longtime whistleblower on EPA’s shortcomings—told London’s The Independent that the Bush administration was playing down the need for a cleanup, and that the EPA has been kept out of the core White House group tackling the problem. Said Kaufman of the agency, “Its budget has been cut and political hacks have been put in key positions,” The Independent reports.
The water being pumped from the city is not being tested for pollution, according to Kaufman, and will damage Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi river and endanger people downstream. Plus, no one knows how much pollution has escaped through damaged chemical plants, refineries and petroleum storage deports in New Orleans Ñ and no one, says Kaufman, is trying to find out. The cleanup, Kaufman says, “will take 10 years to get everything up and running and safe,” according to The Independent.
“We don’t yet know everything we need to know about the potential health effects of population-wide exposure to the chemical mix in the floodwaters, but we do know that women of reproductive age, infants and girls undergoing puberty have special vulnerabilities to the kinds of chemicals so far identified,” says Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., a biologist, author and distinguished visiting scholar at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, in an interview with Ms. magazine. Those chemicals include mercury (a brain poison whose potency is concentrated as it moves across the placenta) and lead (which accumulates in women’s bones only to be released into her body again during pregnancy).
The floodwaters also contain pesticides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and volatile organic chemicals. “These are substances variously associated with birth defects, asthma, learning disabilities, infertility, miscarriage, breast cancer and endocrine disruption,” says Steingraber. “When it comes to environmental harm, the old adage grimly applies: it’s women and children first.”