Friday, September 01, 2017

A Sea of Health and Environmental Hazards in Houston’s Floodwaters

[New York Times] 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.
Porfirio Villarreal, a spokesman for the Houston Health Department, said the hazards of the water enveloping the city were self-evident.
“There’s no need to test it,” he said. “It’s contaminated. There’s millions of contaminants.”
He said health officials were urging people to stay out of the water if they could, although it is already too late for tens of thousands.
“We’re telling people to avoid the floodwater as much as possible. Don’t let your children play in it. And if you do touch it, wash it off,” Mr. Villarreal said. “Remember, this is going to go on for weeks.”
Flooding always brings the danger of contamination and disease, though epidemics from floods in the United States have been rare. This inundation, which put nearly 30 percent of the nation’s fourth-largest city underwater, will pose enormous problems, both immediately and when the waters finally recede.
Dr. David Persse, Houston’s director of Emergency Medical Services, said officials were monitoring the drinking water system and the sewer system, both of which he said were intact so far. But hundreds of thousands of people across the 38 Texas counties affected by Hurricane Harvey use private wells, according to an estimate by Louisiana State University researchers, and those people must fend for themselves.
“Well water is at risk for being contaminated,” Dr. Persse said, “and the well owner is really the one who is responsible. In the City of Houston, we have folks that use well water but we strongly recommend against it — and this will sound awful — we don’t take responsibility for it.”
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. Read More