Katrina Cleanup: Deadly Toxins

You've seen the awful pictures: rotting houses knocked off their foundations, walls mottled with mold, floors coated in grimy mud, piles of God-knows-what towering over empty streets. For Hurricane Katrina survivors and volunteers sent to help, the cleanup isn't just unpleasant—it's potentially sickening.

Like the 9/11 workers, many of those working in the Katrina rubble are being exposed to deadly toxins, says Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington. With more than 35 years of experience in the field, he particularly worries about workers and citizens being exposed to harmful contaminants like asbestos and mold .

A year ago, Kaufman cautioned residents about returning to the affected areas too quickly. Now he explains to NEWSWEEK's Jessica Bennett how dangerous the situation remains. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What's the present environmental situation in the Gulf Coast regions hit hardest by Katrina?

Hugh Kaufman: We're dealing with the major issue of cleanup, and continuing to assess the magnitude of the problem. You basically still have a large amount of toxic material ... [and] studies have shown high levels of heavy metals in the sediments that have coated the areas. You've got a tremendous amount of solid waste—over 20 million tons—[in the form of] automobiles, trash, etc., that has to be dealt with. And you have a problem that a number of us are raising red flags about, which is [the lack of] protective equipment for people who are involved in cleanup.

What do you mean by lack of protective equipment?

When you go into these homes that are contaminated, you're dealing with mold and asbestos ... My big concern is civilians who are going down there trying to do the right thing, helping provide labor to help restore that area, and the environmental risks they're being exposed to. You have students and other folks going down there wearing—for all intents and purposes—"dust masks," not being trained in the handling of asbestos and mold properly and [spending time] inside tens of thousands of people's homes and exposing themselves to cancer-causing contaminants. What that means is the risk of cancer to the people who want to help has gone up ... And the people who are bringing them down there are no more knowledgeable [of this] than the volunteers.

If this is so serious, why are volunteers still being sent down there?

I frankly think it's incompetence. I think you've got people making these kinds of decisions with zero experience in this field, and the people with experience are not being listened to. There's a disconnect between the decision makers and the experienced folks who know what's what.