Exposure to floodwaters is leading to serious health issues for residents around South Texas. If you or someone you love was made sick after exposure to floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey, call (888) 400-2101 or use our online form to speak with Arnold & Itkin. We want to help you understand your legal, medical, and financial options.
Hurricane Harvey taxed the infrastructure of the greater Houston area and surrounding cities to their breaking point—and in many cases, exceed the breaking point. Experts from multiple government groups have made startling findings about the health hazards introduced to the water and air in Harvey’s wake. Today’s blog has compiled the findings reported by multiple groups throughout South Texas, as reported by multiple newspapers and sources.
Massive Sewage Spills Throughout Harris, Fort Bend & Galveston Counties
Experts are estimating that up to 31.6 million gallons of raw sewage was spilled and distributed throughout the greater Houston area. Much of the sewage was spilled in Harris County, with 20.7 million gallons over the course of 65 releases. Fort Bend County spilled 9.5 gallons in 11 different releases. Across the state, there were 179 separate sewage spills due to Harvey.
Other counties reported major spillage:
- Galveston County reported 135,000 gallons of sludge in 15 spills
- Walker County reported 426,000 gallons in 4 spills
- Montgomery County reported 131,200 gallons in 10 spills
With severe damage to the water treatment infrastructure of Houston, the spillage may pose a threat to public health for an unprecedented amount of time. After Harvey, 10 sewage treatment plants were rendered inoperable or completely destroyed, with 6 destroyed in the greater Houston area alone. As of last month, 40 plants are still operating, but some of them suffered severe structural damage from the historic storm.
This may not even cover all of it. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is the governing authority each sewage plant must report to, but many of the sewage plants aren’t reporting how much spillage occurred at their facility. Allegedly, many of the forms simply leave that space blank.
Over 1 Million Pounds of Air Pollution
The air all over the greater Houston area is under threat from chemical contamination as well. Texas is the largest producer of chemicals in the United States, and many of those refineries, plants, and storage facilities were located in Hurricane Harvey’s path. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, over 1 million pounds of air pollutants were released the week after Harvey.
All of the chemicals reportedly in the air harmful—many are known to cause cancer:
- Hydrogen sulfide
- Sulfur dioxide
There were multiple causes for chemical spillage: water flooded storage tanks; floating roof lids sank under the rainwater and allowed for the release of harmful chemicals and vapors; broken valves and shutdown protocols created excessive flaring; and other causes led to chemical releases. Experts estimate that further chemical contamination is possible as factories attempt to operate with damaged equipment or faulty tanks.
Sludge & Sediment Left Behind by Receding Waters
The sewage and chemical contaminants have been embedded in the sediment left behind by the floodwaters. As the waters recede, residents report a sandy or sludge-like material left behind. Officials are urging residents to refrain from touching it or letting their children near it—even if it looks like clean, normal sand. Some initial tests have revealed that sand in some areas (particularly Buffalo Bayou) could contain dangerous chemicals and bacteria.
Despite the public safety risk, the TCEQ is not testing sediment in parks or residential areas. Thankfully, researchers from other organizations have taken it upon themselves to test sediment found in parks and other areas where people are likely to be impacted by the contaminants.
The Human Cost of Environmental Contamination
These releases don’t have a hypothetical or theoretical impact on the people of Houston—some residents are already feeling the physical effects of contamination. For up to 10 days after Harvey, residents near sewage treatment plants were asked to limit their water usage—less flushing, bathing, or laundry. People who lived near standing bodies of floodwater were at risk for contracting infectious parasites or intestinal bacteria. The sandy sediment mentioned above has formed inviting-looking piles in neighborhoods, where children have been using it to build sand castles.
This sediment could contain pollutants like:
- Motor oil
- Household chemicals
Downstream from Buffalo Bayou in a development called Clayton Homes, a family of seven had to evacuate when researchers discovered that water in and around their home had traces of E. coli and fecal coliform, while sediment contained unsafe amounts of arsenic, chromium, cadmium, and lead. Cadmium and lead are associated with poor birth outcomes, while E. coli exposure is potentially fatal. Texas is looking at both short-term and long-term health ramifications.
Unfortunately, this is far from the only family in their area with serious public safety hazards in their own home. A 77-year-old woman in Kingswood was killed last month by necrotizing fasciitis (i.e. flesh-eating bacteria). She had contracted it when she cut her elbow while cleaning out her flooded garage.
More Texans Could Be at Risk
Experts are concerned that the continuous mucking and clean-up efforts could lead to further contamination and risk. Particulates left in the walls and floors of damaged homes will be shaken up and spread as people clean their houses, and piles of debris will ensure that the particulates will collect outside. Thousands of people in the greater Houston area are facing health issues ranging from the inconvenient to the life-altering.
After Hurricane Katrina, 10 percent of muckers contracted gastrointestinal issues or developed “Katrina cough,” which was caused by particulates building up in the upper respiratory system. Even as we recognize the heroism of people who are volunteering for cleanup efforts, we need to recognize the significant risks associated with it.
If you exhibit any of the following symptoms, see a doctor immediately:
- Swollen or hot skin
- Wheezing or trouble breathing
- Sudden rashes or red areas on skin
If you’re doing cleanup of any kind, experts recommend using heavy gloves, masks, and full protective gear. They also recommend opening all your windows when mucking—the air and water inside homes will be far worse than air and water outside the house. Finally, make sure you wash your clean-up clothes separately from your everyday clothing.
Keep in mind that even using all these things may not fully protect you. Recently, a 37-year-old volunteer was cleaning up the home of an elderly evacuee while wearing a mask, latex gloves, heavy work gloves, and heavy boots. The day after cleaning up, her entire body ached and she had flu symptoms. The sickness was strong enough to keep her in bed for two days, and symptoms lingered for a week. All this despite being cautious.
Areas of South Texas with Inoperable or Damaged Sewage Treatment Plants
If you live near a damaged or inoperable sewage treatment plant, you should know it. The TCEQ hasn’t released all the details regarding Hurricane Harvey’s damage to sewage plants, but reporters have been investigating the number of sewage plants (and the TCEQ has provided some confirmations).
Reporters have been able to gather the following information about damaged plants:
- Turkey Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant has been damaged (downstream from Addicks & Barker reservoirs)
- Bear Creek Pioneers Park Wastewater Treatment Plant has been damaged (north of Addicks)
- Cedar Bayou Park Wastewater Treatment Plant has been destroyed
- McDonough Marine Service Plant in Channelview has been destroyed
- Unidentified plants in Northeast Harris County, Brazoria, Jefferson, Orange, and Washington counties are destroyed
To understand your legal and financial options in the face of environmental pollution, call (888) 400-2101 or use our short online form. In a free review of your case, we can determine if you’re eligible for relief for your losses.