Airborne mould poses serious health threat in New Orleans

People who have returned to the devastated city of New Orleans are facing fresh problems from high levels of airborne mould, which experts say pose a serious health threat.

A leading environmental group yesterday released the results of a study carried out across the city that they said highlighted a significant danger. The group, the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), accused the government of failing to warn people of the issue. The findings are the first publicly available air quality tests in the city since Hurricane Katrina struck at the end of August.

"The outdoor mould spore concentrations could easily trigger serious allergic or asthmatic reactions in sensitive people," said Dr Gina Solomon, who led the NRDC team. "The indoor air quality was even worse, rendering the homes we tested dangerously uninhabitable by any definition."

The study looked at samples taken from 14 locations in the area, nine of which had been significantly flooded, and examined them for mould spores. They discovered the levels of such spores were extremely high inside flooded properties.

According to the National Allergy Bureau of the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology, any outdoor mould spore level greater than 50,000 spores per cubic metre is considered "very high". The spore counts outdoors in most flooded neighbourhoods tested by the NRDC reached well above that.

One outdoor site in Uptown was measured at 81,000 spores per cubic metre, while an indoor site in the same area had a count of 645,000 spores per cubic metre.

The group, whose tests were supported by a coalition of local organisations, said that the federal government's various agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Health and Human Services and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, are not monitoring mould levels in flooded areas and have not helped residents cope with the problem. It said that while there were no regulatory standards for either indoor or outdoor levels of the spores, it was the government's responsibility to ensure the public is protected.

Many US families forced to leave their homes by devastating storms have been told that funding for accommodation in hotels will be cut by 1 December. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), in charge of the relief effort, has paid evacuees some $274m (£159m) since hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Almost 54,000 families are still living in hotels and motels in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi.

Fema wants people to move to temporary accommodation before finding new homes. "There are still too many people living in hotel rooms and we want to help them get into longer-term homes before the holidays," said David Paulson, acting director of Fema.

"Those affected by the storms should have the opportunity to become self-reliant again and reclaim some normalcy in their lives." From 1 December, most families staying in hotels will either have to pay the bills themselves or cover the costs with Fema housing aid.

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