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Midwest flooding may turn basements toxic

July 1, 2008 |  4:12 pm


While many worry that this summer's Midwest flooding will pollute oceans and rivers with fertilizers and other chemicals, researchers at Louisiana State University found that "indoor toxins" may be the real cause for concern, according to a story in today's Christian Science Monitor.

The problem is that flood victims get an OK to return and begin the cleanup based on contaminant levels measured outdoors. But those measurements may significantly underestimate what awaits when people walk inside.

The researchers, graduate student Nicholas Ashley and professor Louis Thibodeaux, studied two homes after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 and found that the "levels of arsenic, cadmium, vanadium, and lead in the homes were substantially higher than the maximum levels that the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe," according to the Monitor.

These metals travel into homes by clinging onto fine silt particles, which eventually settle out. In addition, "waterborne organic chemicals prone to evaporation also seep inside...Mold can absorb and retain the organics in the gas, then redistribute them when it releases its spores," the story said. Finally, stores of cleaning agents, oil or gasoline in waterlogged basements may leak, and electronics may leach metals.

The Baton Rouge researchers are working on a model to try to  gauge these indoor pollution levels post-flooding, and they hope to develop some simple water and sediment sampling kits for emergency crews to use before residents go back home. That said, the story also notes that "the duo acknowledges they are operating on sparse data -- two houses."

-- Tami Abdollah

Photo: Flooded homes in New Orleans. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times