Officials in Houston are just beginning to grapple with the health and environmental risks that lurk in the waters dumped by Hurricane Harvey, a stew of toxic chemicals, sewage, debris and waste that still floods much of the city.
Flooded sewers are stoking fears of cholera, typhoid and other infectious diseases. Runoff from the city’s sprawling petroleum and chemicals complex contains any number of hazardous compounds. Lead, arsenic and other toxic and carcinogenic elements may be leaching from some two dozen Superfund sites in the Houston area…
“Harris County, home to Houston, hosts more than two dozen current and former toxic waste sites designated under the federal Superfund program. The sites contain what the Environmental Protection Agency calls legacy contamination: lead, arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls, benzene and other toxic and carcinogenic compounds from industrial activities many years ago… (A)
Houston was already affected by inequality and healthcare disparities. The Manchester neighborhood in Houston is what Samson described as a “classic environmental justice” area – a Latino neighborhood on the Houston shipping channel where petrochemical plants surround houses and most people speak Spanish.
“Barium is ubiquitous in the area because of refineries, as well as arsenic and mercury,” said Sansom. “All of that is going to be in potential of coming into contact with humans. There’s sort of the complex chemical mixture.”
Wildlife can also become a sudden danger. Standing water left after the flood recedes will leave an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes – which were already a pest in Houston..
Zika captures the most headlines of any mosquito-spread diseases, but it’s far from the only one. The same Houston-endemic mosquitoes transmit dengue and chikungunya, infections characterized by fever. Other mosquito species spread West Nile virus, which can be dangerous for the elderly and health compromised.
Flood waters have also delivered fire ants to front doors, and Sansom warned flooded houses can become a home for venomous snakes such as water moccasins.
Water-borne and person-to-person infections can also easily spread after a disaster. Overwhelmed sewer systems bring people into contact with disease-spreading bacteria. Stomach illnesses are common following floods, public health officials said… (B)
“Authorities warned of the danger posed by the plant in Crosby, about 30 miles northeast of Houston. The French company operating the plant said explosions were possible, and William “Brock” Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, called the potential for a chemical plume “incredibly dangerous.”
Still, officials offered differing accounts regarding what occurred at the Crosby plant, which makes organic peroxides for use in items such as counter tops and pipes. The plant’s operators, which had earlier Thursday reported explosions, later said they believe at least one valve “popped” there, though they noted it was impossible to know for sure since all employees had left the site. (C)
“In the aftermath (of Katrina), a coalition of hospitals, emergency medical services, fire departments and community leaders undertook intensive efforts to fortify the city’s medical system. This led to such physical changes in the sprawling medical center as submarine doors that can be closed to wall off parts of a tunnel system that runs beneath the blocks-long area. Outside berms were built for protection should a gully off Brays Bayou overflow its banks, and strategically located flood gates that can rise three feet were installed. Hospitals that had emergency electricity generators in the basement moved them higher.
Such fortifications were tested as never before in recent days.
Based on protocols written over the intervening years, hospitals stationed extra staff members in their facilities so stranded workers could rotate in shifts. Other systems lessened the risk of running out of crucial supplies.
And unlike after Hurricane Katrina, in which no one knew where some New Orleans patients had been moved and some arrived at distant hospitals without medical records, a regional Catastrophic Medical Operations Center coordinated transfers and kept track of which hospitals had beds available for specific types of care…” (D)
A. A Sea of Health and Environmental Hazards in Houston’s Floodwaters, By HIROKO TABUCHI and SHEILA KAPLAN, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/31/us/houston-contaminated-floodwaters.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share&_r=0
B. Sewage, debris, mosquitoes: flood waters increase health risk for Harvey victims, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/aug/30/health-implications-texas-floods-hurrican-harvey
C. Chemicals ignite at flooded plant in Texas as Harvey’s devastation lingers, by Alex Horton and Mark Berman, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/08/31/harveys-wrath-moves-across-the-louisiana-texas-border-as-water-recedes-in-houston/?utm_term=.8973b6e86b6b
D. Some hospitals evacuated, but Houston’s medical world mostly withstands Harvey, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/some-hospitals-evacuated-but-houstons-vaunted-medical-world-mostly-withstands-harvey/2017/08/30/2e9e5a2c-8d90-11e7-84c0-02cc069f2c37_story.html?utm_term=.70679d68f226
E. Here’s how to deal with those clumps of floating fire ants in Houston, by Megan Farokhmanesh, https://www.theverge.com/2017/8/29/16221842/hurricane-harvey-houston-fire-ants
“In addition to the catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Harvey, Houston residents have one more thing to worry about: floating colonies of fire ants.
Fire ants have waxy bodies that allow them to repel water. Should a colony find itself waterlogged, ants will protect their queen by forming a mass around her, as well as eggs, larvae, and pupae (ants that are in between larvae and adults). As the ants float, they rotate, so that the underwater ants will get to the top and vice versa..…
The ants, in fact, aren’t harmless, she says. People who come in contact with the colonies will get at least a few itchy, probably painful pustules. But how your skin reacts can differ from swelling to life-threatening allergic reactions. “Once they hit you, you’re a solid surface so they’re gonna crawl on you,” …. “When the first one stings, they emit a pheromone that causes a chain reaction that tells everybody else to sting, so you’re going to experience quite a few stings.”… (E)