As millions of Americans watched in horror, one of our nation’s most prominent cities was virtually destroyed before their eyes. It would be hard to overestimate the emotional impact the barrage of images of tens of thousands of helpless victims packed into the New Orleans Superdome, languishing in the open on highway overpasses or waving from the roofs of their homes in hope of alerting rescuers had on our collective consciousness. In the days that followed the true scope of the disaster began to unfold. Some 90,000 square miles of the Southeastern United States was literally destroyed and engulfed in a toxic soup that threatened the life and health of both residents and emergency service personnel.
Moments of enormous courage and selflessness and unspeakable callousness were brought into the nation’s living rooms in real time. In many ways it was almost too much to absorb. But beyond the obvious tale of a tragedy of biblical proportions, there was also another important message – a message that may not, as yet be fully appreciated. Put simply, Hurricane Katrina has put us on notice that our environment is on the edge. In countless communities across the nation, the conditions to create an environmental catastrophe exist – waiting only for a natural disaster or terrorist sabotage to act as a catalyst. The experience in New Orleans gave us a glimpse of just how devastating such a catastrophe could be.
When the flood surge and torrential rains from Hurricane Katrina tore huge gaps in New Orleans’ levees, leaving nearly 90% of the city under water, the initial concerns expressed were focused primarily on water damage to the affected property. But as a clearer picture of the consequences emerged, it soon became evident that the water damage caused by the flood was only part of the problem.
Of equal or even greater concern was the toxic soup of pollutants the water spread over the city.
Oil and chemicals from storage tanks and motor vehicles engulfed by the floodwaters, raw sewage from waste treatment facilities, debris and horrifically dead bodies combined to create a devil’s brew that contaminated everything it touched. Rescue workers and police were forced to don protective gear ranging from the rubberized “waders” fishermen frequently wear to full blown “hazmat” suits depending on the location and water depth. Those who failed to heed the warnings or who accidentally were immersed required the sort of immediate decontamination normally associated with toxic chemical spills.
This fact was brought home in the early coverage of the relief efforts which included more than one image of rescue workers, policemen and even reporters desperately trying to wash off the corrosive sludge they had accidentally been exposed to.
But the toxicity of the flood waters was only an immediate and apparent consequence of the flooding. Of far more concern are the longer term effects.
Many, if not most of the estimated 240,000 homes submerged by the floodwaters have been contaminated to the point that they will have to be torn down, and the debris disposed of as TOXIC WASTE!
As a result, even owners of homes that were subjected to less than catastrophic damage will face the prospect of enormously expensive clean-up and repair costs. The hard truth is that in those homes every room reached by the toxic sludge will be permeated with contaminants that will require specialized remediation and repair. But even the structural repairs and clean-up may not cover the long-term hazards the flood created. Exposed soil that was submerged for days or even weeks is likely to have absorbed the poisons carried by the deluge and may have to be removed and disposed of.
But that’s not all.
Homeowners, who return to relatively dry residences where the waters retreated quickly, may think they’re OK, but they would be mistaken. The damp wood and fiber left behind will provide an ideal growth medium for toxic molds that can produce long-term health effects. Also, like those homes with more apparent damage, soil contamination might be a problem.
Yet in all the media coverage of the storm damage and contamination, one essential point has been missed: While these toxic substances might be present in a more concentrated form in New Orleans and other flood areas, they exist throughout our environment in lesser concentrations. While the health hazards of these lesser concentrations might not be as immediately evident or as dramatic as the toxic sludge in New Orleans, they are none the less deadly!
How big is the problem?
The Environmental Protection Agency closely monitors the release and disposal of toxic substances in our environment. In 2002, the most recent year for which complete figures are available, the United States generated 26.2 BILLION pounds of these noxious chemicals. Moreover, they were produced at 24,000 facilities around the nation, so no one is safe!
Most of these toxic substances were treated or disposed of in some fashion, with 37% recycled either on site or elsewhere, 30% were treated to neutralize their dangers or stabilize them either on-site or elsewhere, and 14% were burned for their energy content either on-site or off.
These figures sound impressive until you do the math.
Yes, it is true that 81% of the toxic substances we create each year are disposed of, neutralized or otherwise taken care of.
But that means that 19% ARE NOT!
And if you think that 19% isn’t very much – you’d better think again!
The total comes to nearly 4.8 BILLION POUNDS of dangerous chemicals and substances released into our environment EVERY YEAR!
That amounts to more than 17 pounds for every man, woman and child in the United States!
That may not sound like a lot, but remember, toxic levels of these substances are measured in micrograms and there are 454.4 BILLION Micrograms in a single pound!
That means that over 7.7 billion micrograms of deadly poison are released into the environment each year for EVERY AMERICAN!
Included in these figures are 4.3 BILLION POUNDS that were either released on site, injected into underground wells (where they could potentially leach out into the water table) spilled or simply piled up and otherwise released.
Of greatest concern are the so-called “Persistent Bioaccumulative and Accumulative Toxic Chemicals,” or PBT’s. These are chemicals such as PCB’s, dioxin, lead, and mercury. The problem with these particular toxins is that unlike some other forms of pollution, once they are released into the environment, they do not break down and eventually dissipate. Instead, they continue to build up year after year.
And that’s not the worst of it.
In addition to building up in the environment, they also build up in our bodies over time. As a result, we get hit with a double whammy. Not only does the amount of these poisons in the environment steadily increase, thereby causing a corresponding increase in exposure levels, but they remain in our bodies making each successive exposure ever-more dangerous!
One need only consider the warnings about eating too much fish because of its increasing mercury content – warnings issued by the Federal Government, mind you – to understand that the issue is real. But while we can limit the amount of fish we eat, we cannot control all sources of exposure.
If you have any doubt about the potential danger from exposures we cannot avoid, consider one fact. Studies of the breast tissue in women with breast cancer show that they have anywhere from 10 times to 100 times the concentration of chlorinated biphenyl’s such as PCB’s as women who do not suffer from the disease! Moreover, between 1950 and 2004, the incidence of breast cancer in women increased from one in twenty to one in seven – a period that marked a dramatic increase in chlorinated biphenyls into the environment!
It’s not just toxic substances on land that are a problem.
Air quality, too, has steadily deteriorated.
The Environmental Protection Agency has created a series of measurements to determine if our air is unhealthy. These are embodied in a set of “standards” that determine the allowable level of a specific pollutant for a specific period of time. These include a “one-hour” standard, an “eight hour” standard and so forth. The shorter the time period measured, the less stringent the standard. The reason this is the case is that there is a relationship between the duration of exposure to pollution and the effects. Therefore, a brief exposure to a higher level might not be as harmful as a continuing exposure to a higher level.
Consider the following:
In 2001, the last year complete figures were compiled:
- 15% of children lived in areas where the one-hour ozone standard was exceeded at least one day per year.
- 40% of children lived in counties that exceeded the eight-hour ozone standard for ozone exposure.
- 25% of children lived in counties that exceed the 2.5 micron particulate standard.
- In 1996, 95% of children lived in counties that exceeded the “benchmark” of one in 100,000 cancer risk for at least one hazardous air pollutant.
When the risk from all air pollutants is taken into account, some 18% of all children – almost one in five – live in areas that exceed the 1 in 10,000 cancer risk!
Worse, some 1.8 million children live in areas that exceed 80% of the long-term standard for air pollution!
But these dry statistics don’t really bring home the potential long-term consequences of these exposures.
A case in point is what is termed “particulates matter,” or more simply “particulates.”
Particulates are microscopic bits of matter ranging from 2.5 microns to as much as 10 microns. They are created in a variety of ways, including natural processes of erosion, exhaust fumes from diesel engines and power production. What is essential to understanding the danger of exposure to this toxic dust is that there is NO SAFE LEVEL for particulates. Yet some 3 MILLON CHILDREN live in areas with high concentrations of particulate matter!
Still, how bad could a little dust be?