Texas Tech Ecotoxicologist: New Research Describes High Lead in New Orleans Prior
to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita
May 14, 2010
Lead a problem in oldest, poorest sections of town.
While studying the environmental impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, recent
Texas Tech University-led research has discovered high concentrations of lead in the
poorest and oldest parts of New Orleans.
The results, one of five pollution studies related to Katrina, were published online
Friday in a special issue of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.
“Our research to evaluate contaminants in New Orleans was critical to determine if
storm surges and flooding altered chemical concentrations or distribution,” said George
Cobb, a professor in the Department of Environmental Toxicology at The Institute of
Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech. “We found that long-term, human-health
consequences in New Orleans are difficult to attribute to chemical deposition or redistribution
by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. However, lead was found in elevated concentrations,
particularly in the most disadvantaged areas of New Orleans.”
To calculate the impact of chemical contamination, a multidisciplinary research group
from Texas Tech studied 128 sampling sites across New Orleans. The team combined their
findings with data sets generated by Burton Suedel with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Maps were then compiled from the resulting data to reveal chemical distribution across
While the team’s findings indicated that levels of lead frequently exceeded regulatory
thresholds, further research showed that many of the contaminants were present in
high concentrations before the storm season and that lead may have posed a significant
risk to New Orleans residents for years before Hurricane Katrina.
The highest concentrations in New Orleans of arsenic and lead were observed in soils
from the poorer sections of the city, Cobb said. The team also discovered that 15
percent of their samples contained lead concentrations that exceeded a regulatory
threshold for safety. The highest concentrations of lead were found in the oldest
parts of the city.
The regulatory threshold on lead is 400 micrograms per gram. In one sample, the team
discovered 8,000 micrograms per gram.
Lead in soil poses a significant risk to residents who returned to their homes following
the evacuation, especially children, Cobb said.
Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in August 2005, remains the costliest and
deadliest hurricane to ever hit the United States. When the category five hurricane
hit land the resulting surge extended six miles inland, breaching the levees of New
Orleans, causing flooding to 80 percent of the city to depths of 19 feet.
In human terms, Katrina resulted in 1,800 confirmed fatalities spread across six states
with at least 700 people confirmed missing and more than 1 million people displaced.
Katrina-related damage is estimated to exceed $84 billion. Yet, it is the indirect
environmental impact which continues to pose a risk to the population of New Orleans.
“While evidence suggests that hurricanes may likely increase in intensity, resulting
in even greater economic damage in the future, there are social and cultural factors
that are also important regarding the future impact of hurricanes,” said Bill Benson,
a director with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s offices on the Gulf Coast.
“It is important that higher priority is given to understanding social factors and
demographic patterns pertaining to continued development along our nation’s coastline.”
For a copy of this report, please contact John Davis. For more information on the
other four reports, contact Ben Norman at Wiley-Blackwell in Chichester, U.K., at
+44 1243 779777 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Be aware that Norman is six hours ahead from
central daylight time.
CONTACT: George Cobb, professor, Department of Environmental Toxicology, The Institute of Environmental and Human Health, Texas Tech University, (806) 885-4567 or email@example.com; Steve Presley, research coordinator, Department of Environmental Toxicology, The Institute of Environmental and Human Health,
Texas Tech University, (806) 885-4567 or firstname.lastname@example.org.