Residents caught in Harvey’s wake are finding that the water in their homes is the least of their problems: what’s in the water is even worse.
A family from Briarhills Parkway went home to retrieve some of their belongings. Wading through the water, what they saw (and smelled) was startling: black and yellow mold had begun growing on their old couch. The smell of the living room was putrid, festering—like an open manhole. One of the children, a young man with asthma, left the site with a persistent cough. Another resident from the area went to the hospital with a staph infection.
The family who attempted to go home has decided to move to Dallas.
Runoff Creates Cancer Risk
The San Jacinto River overflowed to capacity following Hurricane Harvey—riverbanks burst, and a wall of water wiped away entire houses in riverfront communities. Neighborhoods east of Houston—Channelview, Highlands, and Baytown—were inundated with water that dragged carcinogenic toxins from the nearby San Jacinto Waste Pits into their homes and yards.
Hundreds of families are now wondering if their land and water has been permanently poisoned. Dozens are considering if their homes are too contaminated to save, while others aren’t even sure it’s safe to retrieve their belongings yet. Few officials have offered answers except for Dr. David Persse, Houston’s chief medical officer. He clarified the situation: “Everybody has to consider the floodwater contaminated.”
History of Toxic Contamination
The San Jacinto Waste Pits, one of 13 Superfund sites that were flooded or damaged by Hurricane Harvey, were created decades ago when paper mills released high amounts of dioxins (a cancer-causing chemical) into the river. The EPA capped the waste pits years ago. They’ve since inspected them as well, assuring residents that Harvey has not compromised the caps.
Homeowners don’t feel so confident. After all, many Harris County zones were already contaminated before Harvey made landfall. Children and pregnant women in Lower Jacinto River are warned to avoid eating seafood. The three neighborhoods mentioned above are already part of a 600-family civil suit alleging that their property and health were ruined by exposure to the waste pits in the 1960s onward. Now those waters, those chemicals, and those risks have been allowed into water which is now inside of people’s homes throughout the region.
To make matters worse, water that is inside homes is an even more ideal location for bacterial growth, according to experts. Inspections of the water along Buffalo Bayou by public health services revealed that E. coli levels in homes were more than 135 times what’s considered safe. Trace amounts of arsenic and lead are in the water, the sand, and sludge all along flooded areas. Breaches at water treatment plants may mean residents can’t drink or bathe in their water supply without risking their health.
This Is the Time to Be Safe
Floodwaters are already dangerous due to toxic contamination. Sewage and bacteria are present even in freshwater floods that aren’t near Superfund sites. The regions surrounding Harris County contain multiple high-risk hazardous waste sites, magnifying the health consequences to residents.
For many residents, living near these sites is a fact of life—you simply live with it. But the flooding from Hurricane Harvey, while unprecedented, was not entirely unpredictable. Officials knew that flooding was an issue in the neighborhoods mentioned above—but loose regulations means people like us were left unprepared for one of the most dangerous, toxic floods to ever strike the area.
If you’re in these areas, listen to your local officials, but try to stay as far away from the water as possible. Find a hotel, get to dry areas, and see a doctor for any symptoms you feel/see. If an open wound of any kind was exposed to floodwaters, see a doctor. If you breathed in mold, fumes, or any chemicals without a filter mask, try to get checked out as quickly as possible.
Houston’s recovery will be difficult—but it will be far more difficult if county officials don’t ensure the health of the people and the ecosystems fed by our waterways.