While more than 70,000 people have already returned to New Orleans, the question now looms whether or not the land, water and air are contaminated with toxins. Environmental groups have accused government and state agencies of not doing enough to ensure the area’s safety. Last fall, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sent in a team to conduct its own tests. They found dangerously high levels of mold both inside and outside homes, metals and arsenic in the sediments left behind by receding waters, and pollutants in the air. All are said to be possible causes of the hacking cough that locally has become known as the Katrina cough.

“Federal and state agencies seem to be ignoring contamination levels that would normally trigger soil removal at a waste site,” says Dr. Gina Solomon, an NRDC senior scientist and a physician specializing in occupational and environmental medicine. In their defense, state officials insist that the NRDC study is flawed and the environment has already begun to repair itself. “Hundreds of samples have been collected and analyzed,” says Mike McDaniel, Ph.D., secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. “The results show that floodwaters were unsanitary because of sewage contamination, but not toxic. Some areas need further testing, but there’s no risk in returning to New Orleans.”

In cooperation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other agencies, the Department of Environmental Quality has formed a task force to advise officials of potential risks. Assessments conducted by the group last December reported air pollution at acceptable levels. The study also concluded that remaining sediment won’t cause adverse health effects-provided that people use common sense and practice good personal hygiene.

For more on the cleanup effort, contact the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality hotline at (225) 342-1234, or go to deq.louisiana. gov. To follow what local environmental groups are doing, visit nrdc.org.