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Storms turn everyday items to toxic trash

Hurricanes scattered tons of chemicals

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EPA crews look for toxic chemicals in the piles of debris lining a street in Slidell, Louisiana.

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Louisiana

(CNN) -- Tons of household chemicals that were once stored safely in garages, bathrooms and kitchen cabinets along the Gulf Coast pose a potential environmental threat after being scattered by Hurricane Katrina and its twin Rita.

The storms destroyed or damaged some 160,000 homes and left an estimated 22 million tons of debris in their wake. That's enough to cover 200 football fields with a 50-foot pile.

Buried in the mess, like toxic needles in a haystack, are paint cans, bottles of chlorine bleach, drain cleaners and other contaminates. (Watch the environmental cleanup -- 2:05)

"We calculated that there's as much as 5 million gallons of that particular waste stream," said Chuck Brown with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

The gasoline tanker trucks you see on the highway hold about 9,000 gallons, so it would take more than 550 of them to carry all those chemicals.

Crews are going street to street in cities and towns across the region to collect the contaminants and make sure they are disposed of properly.

A crew working in Slidell, Louisiana, did not have enough people to dig through all the debris, so they were only grabbing what they could see.

"If we're lucky, we'll probably get maybe 20 percent, 30 percent, somewhere right around there," said David Romero with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA asked residents to help out by marking chemical containers and setting them aside until they can be disposed of. Officials also urged people not to burn the containers or dump them into drains or toilets.

"It can affect the ground water and can affect the environment, so there are several different impacts," Romero said.

Environmental officials are also working to dispose of common household hazards -- many of which may seem harmless.

Ruined refrigerators and freezers line the streets in many neighborhoods, some still loaded with rotting food.

Workers have to remove Freon and other harmful components before they can be recycled.

Microwaves, televisions, computers and other electronics also contain material that could be harmful to the environment and should not be burned, according to the EPA.

"We don't want to create future environmental problems by trying to solve this one," Brown said.

Wood debris is even proving to be difficult to dispose of in parts of Louisiana because of concerns about the Formosan termite.

The state has imposed a quarantine for Calcasieu, Cameron and Jefferson Davis Parishes that requires all wood and cellulose products to be fumigated before they are shipped to other areas.

Then there are the cars.

About 350,000 vehicles were flooded, smashed or abandoned after the storm, environmental officials said.

They'll have to be drained of oil and gasoline before they can be recycled.

As many as 60,000 boats also may have to be destroyed.

CNN's Dan Lothian and Rick Sanchez contributed to this report.

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