WASHINGTON - Public health officials expressed concern Tuesday about possible chemical contamination of waters flooding New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina's wake, saying no one yet knows if industrial leaks occurred.
A task force led by medical and environmental authorities has begun work, based at a still-operating hospital in the flooded city, to monitor for disease outbreaks and "begin to make judgments about when New Orleans is safe to reinhabit," said Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.
There are scattered reports of diarrheal diseases in shelters housing evacuees from New Orleans and coastal Mississippi. It's not yet clear if diseases were spread in the shelters or whether people arrived already ill, said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But, "right now, so far so good," she said of the shelters' ability to prevent disease outbreaks.
Gerberding sought to put to rest concern about disease from exposure to dead bodies in the flooding, or from agents not typically found in this country, such as cholera. Instead, E. coli bacteria and diarrhea-causing viruses like noroviruses, infamous for cruise-ship outbreaks, are much more likely culprits, she stressed.
But, she added, "What I'm really concerned about is we don't know if it's (the water) containing any toxic chemicals."
As part of the task force operating out of Kindred Hospital in New Orleans, environmental specialists will work with public health officials to address whether chemical and petroleum factories in the region survived without damage that could have led to contamination, Gerberding said. "We're just putting the picture together now."