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EPA: Lead, bacteria in floodwater

'The water is full of sewage,' CDC director says

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New Orleans (Louisiana)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The EPA said Wednesday that initial findings from New Orleans floodwater sampling indicate high levels of E. coli and coliform bacteria as well as lead.

"No one should drink the floodwater, especially children," administrator Stephen L. Johnson told reporters. He said the amounts exceeded 10 times the safe limit in all cases.

In addition, people should do all they can to avoid contact with the water, said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

She urged anyone who had not yet evacuated the Louisiana city to do so.

"Basically, the results from the EPA indicate that the water is full of sewage; we know that this is not safe," she said.

The bacteria can cause common intestinal illnesses, she said.

An agency spokesman said the CDC was investigating reports of five fatal cases caused by the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus bacteria to which people with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable.

Gerberding described the cases as "scattered," saying they do not represent an outbreak.

"We see cases of this periodically from time to time along the coast."

The illness "in no way resembles cholera," she said. "It is not spread person to person."

But the CDC's Web site described it as a bacterium "in the same family as those that cause cholera."

On Tuesday, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said one of the deaths occurred in Texas and the other four were in Mississippi.

"These were all either elderly or had chronic, underlying health conditions," people considered most at risk for suffering complications from such infections, he said.

Gerberding downplayed the risk of cholera, saying it has not been found in the region for years and is unlikely to emerge as a threat.

The CDC also is investigating "sporadic reports" of outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness in shelters for evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, she said. Among the contaminants found has been norovirus, which is responsible for outbreaks of GI illness aboard cruise ships.

While the illness is generally not life-threatening, "it's annoying," Gerberding said.

CNN gave three samples to Analytical and Environmental Testing Inc. in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which found 20,000 fecal coliform colonies per 100 milliliters of water, the highest the lab could count. That's 100 times the normal count found in water runoff from storms, the company said.

Officials have said they are taking steps to limit the outbreak of disease in crowded shelters, whose residents could prove susceptible.

Authorities also are watching for respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold, influenza and tuberculosis.

Gerberding credited some shelters for taking steps to minimize those risks, citing one that had set up a long line of portable sinks for evacuees to wash in and others that gave evacuees alcohol-soaked hand wipes.

Within the crowded compounds of shelters, health officials are working to make sure children's immunizations of measles and rubella are up to date, she said.

For adults, the focus is on tetanus and flu vaccines, when they become available.

Reports of diarrhea, tuberculosis investigated

Reports of diarrhea and tuberculosis have emerged in Texas, though it was not clear whether the cases were more widespread than they would have been among a normal population, Gerberding said Tuesday.

The reports of tuberculosis are being investigated, as some evacuees were diagnosed with the disease before the hurricane and were receiving treatment. Ensuring they get back on their medications is a priority, Gerberding said.

An evacuee at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, was taken to a hospital after he began coughing up blood, Skinner said. The case has not been confirmed to be tuberculosis, he said.

The CDC has deployed more than 140 people, and eight more teams are prepared to augment shelter staffs.

A joint task force has been set up at Kindred Hospital in New Orleans to monitor the public health situation and to determine when the area might be safe to reinhabit, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said on Tuesday. The hospital also will be the site for the HHS field command and the city's public health department.

Still, meeting the immediate needs has stressed the nation's public health system, particularly in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which has seen its population rise from 500,000 to 850,000 since last week, Leavitt said.

"The hospitals are under significant pressure," he said.

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