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Saturday, September 17, 2005

N.O. Water is Toxic. No wait, it's not. No, wait, it is.

Another day, another set of reports that represent completely different views of the same story.

Reuters declares that yesterday findings were released that show "New Orleans is not a Toxic Gumbo." Their lede declares:

"New Orleans has not became a hazardous waste site coated in a toxic stew as originally feared, although many flooded areas are coated with a smelly sludge, experts said on Friday."

The Associated Press runs the headline, "Fuel Oils in Sediment in New Orleans." Their lede is:

"A new health risk emerged Friday from the sediment of New Orleans — test results showing that diesel and fuel oils, which can take years to break down, make up as much as a 10th of the weight of some sediment samples."

How is this possible? How can two reports draw different conclusions from the same facts? The fact of the matter is that all of the testing in New Orleans so far is not scientifically sound. As described in an earlier post, the air testing that has been done so far is non-validated, and never, ever, ever intended to sample contaminants in the air.

As for the sediment and the water, EPA administrator Johnson told the LA Times that they are having problems separating out chemicals in the water and sediment because the petroleum is just too pervasive. You can not make any definitive statements about the water like Reuters' sources did, saying "New Orleans has not become a hazardous waste site."

When chemicals cannot be sampled according to guidelines (obviously, as they admit, they couldn't accurately sample chemicals), the testing must be peer viewed to be validated. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) makes it pretty clear that it's better to be safe than to be sorry:

"All protocols, studies, and results of research that ATSDR carries out or funds in whole or in part; and studies that have not previously been peer reviewed that are intended to be used in the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry(ATSDR) Toxicological Profiles must be peer reviewed according to this policy."


Reuters nor AP nor anyone has seen the peer-reviewed results, because I'm pretty sure they don't exist (otherwise they'd be released). Thus the testing is not validated or scientifically sound. The difference is, the Reuters story quotes a government scientist, while the AP goes outside to independent sources. Surprise, surprise, independent scientists are much more cynical of government tests than government experts.

Could people be coming back to a "toxic gumbo" this weekend because outlets like Reuters lead them to believe it is OK?

You betcha.

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