WASHINGTON - Floodwaters in New Orleans contain bacteria associated with sewage that are at least 10 times higher than acceptable safety levels, making direct contact by rescue workers and remaining residents dangerous, the first government tests confirmed Wednesday.
"Human contact with the flood water should be avoided as much as possible," said EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson.
Also found in the first round of testing were elevated lead levels, a risk if people, particularly children, were to drink the water.
Residents have been told since Hurricane Katrina to avoid drinking the water.
But EPA's first tests - which tracked levels of E. coli and other coliform bacteria that are a marker for sewage contamination - emphasize a risk from skin contact as well. The EPA didn't test how much sewage was in the water, but quit when analyses hit the 10-fold mark.
Moreover, this was just a first test.
"We don't know what else is contained in that water," Johnson stressed, saying that daily samples from different neighborhoods were being taken.
Federal health officials stressed that rescue workers need to wear protective clothing before walking in flood waters, and that anyone who comes into contact with the dirty water should be careful not to splash it into their faces - and to find clean water and soap for handwashing.
"Always, always, always wash hands before eating," stressed Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.