Firefighters 'Soaked' in Hazardous Katrina Floodwater

Firefighters working continuously for days at a time in southern Louisiana are "getting soaked from head to toe" in the floodwaters of Katrina, according to Eric Lamar, coordinator of disaster field relief for the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF).

Lamar, speaking from Baton Rouge, La., said while his organization is telling members to wear proper personal protective equipment, "I can tell you it's not that simple."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Sept. 7 the preliminary results of floodwater sampling performed across the New Orleans area. The government found bacteria counts for E. coli in sampled areas "greatly exceed EPA's recommended levels for contact."

In light of these findings, EPA stated that emergency response personnel and members of the public "are to avoid direct contact with standing water when possible."

Lamar said contact with contaminated water is only one of a number of hazards confronting first responders. "We have members who have been doing emergency response for five or six days in a row, so physical and mental strain is an issue." In addition to the greater safety risks that always confront exhausted workers, Lamar mentioned the difficulty of providing food, water, ice and medications to members working in isolated conditions.

"I've been down here five days," said Lamar, "and the way these firefighters look and what they say sounds like they are coming out of a war zone."

The firefighters' union quarantines and performs gross decontamination on the returning workers who are soaked in contaminated floodwater.

EPA said the most likely symptoms of exposure to the water are stomachache, fever, vomiting and diarrhea.

"I'm seeing lots of rashes and fevers," said Lamar, adding that so far one member has been hospitalized.

EPA released one piece of good news with respect to the presence of chemical pollutants in the water. Tests for a variety of industrial contaminants, such as volatile organic compounds, total metals and pesticides, found these substances are at levels that do not pose human health risks.

The agency cautioned, however, that these results are preliminary because the testing has thus far concentrated on neighborhoods, not industrialized areas.

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