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In post-Harvey Houston, extent of water contamination largely unknown

Government agencies and scientists are still trying to get a handle on what exactly is percolating in lingering floodwaters — and who might be most impacted.

Chris Ginter, center, tries to convince a resident of a flooded neighborhood near Buffalo Bayou in Houston to evacuate in his monster truck on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017.

When Houston-based epidemiologist Winifred Hamilton spent a few days in the field last week collecting samples of the abundant floodwater Tropical Storm Harvey had left in its wake, she was able to practice the health safety advice she had urged her fellow Houstonians to follow.

After a day’s work, she disinfected everything she had carried with her, including her purse, cellphone and keys. She was also sure to wash the clothes she had worn in a separate load of laundry and showered before getting into bed. And, of course, she had worn gloves, boots and other protective clothing during her work — she wasn’t entirely sure what was in the floodwater.

“We know that some neighborhoods have been contaminated by gas stations or industries,” said Hamilton, who heads the Environmental Health Service at Baylor College of Medicine. “We are checking for that stuff.”

Government officials and academic scientists say they’re still trying to get a handle on what exactly is percolating in the lingering floodwaters through which many Houstonians are still wading as they return to their homes to inspect damages and recover personal belongings. They already know it’s some mix of bacteria, viruses, metals and other potentially toxic pollutants leached from the myriad of refineries and chemical plants in the area, along with an untold number of submerged septic tanks and dozens of Superfund sites. But collecting enough samples to draw sweeping conclusions about how polluted the water is, and the impact to specific neighborhoods, could take a while — especially as government agencies grapple with staffing shortfalls.

“We’re trying to get a good picture of what’s in the water,” said Latrice Babin, the deputy director of pollution control for Harris County. But she said the staff of about ten water samplers at the agency are struggling to complete testing of industrial sites and waste water treatment facilities.

Of the 450-plus wastewater sites in Harris County, the third most populous county in the country, Babin said there are still about 30 that she has been unable to contact to understand whether they were compromised by flooding.

“They could be sending fluids into the bayous,” she said, adding that only time and testing will tell.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced on Friday that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had completed site assessments at all 43 Superfund sites in areas affected by the storm. He said in a press release that two of those sites — the San Jacinto Waste Pits and the U.S. Oil Recovery — will require further assessment, which will take several days to complete.

Low-income and minority communities could be particularly impacted. An analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity released Friday found that nine of 16 flooded Superfund sites are in neighborhoods where a majority of residents are minority or low-income.

At least 168 water systems across the state impacted by Harvey still have boil-water notices, including the system in Beaumont, and 50 are shut down, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The agency also says it’s actively monitoring wastewater facilities that have reported spills.

Earlier this year, the TCEQ had expressed concern about understaffing of investigators who may conduct water sampling. In a letter to the state’s budget director in April, the agency asked for an exemption to hire 24 investigators lost to workforce attrition after Abbott's hiring freeze on state agencies. But a TCEQ spokeswoman said the agency had filled all but one of those positions by the time Hurricane Harvey made landfall Aug. 25.   

On Thursday, Abbott said the TCEQ was “working hand in hand” with the EPA to ensure that toxic chemical sites were being monitored. 

Public health officials are also imploring unregulated private well owners to assume their water source is compromised, decontaminate it and then take a water sample to ensure quality.  

Because private wells are not regulated, there are no official numbers as to how many might be impacted, but Michael Schaffer, director of environmental public health for Harris County, estimates there may be thousands in the county.

Winifred and other university-affiliated researchers who are conducting independent water sampling studies say initial water sampling tests in the Houston area indicate floodwaters contain very high levels of E. coli, most likely due to sewage contamination.  

Qilin Li, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Rice University, says her water sampling still requires more analysis but initial results reveal that some areas have more than 100 times the rate the EPA recommends for allowable levels of the bacteria in recreational water.

“That’s very bad,” Li said. But she said that bacterial contamination is not unexpected or uncommon in post-flood situations, which is why public health officials are urging people to take precautions and minimize their exposure to floodwater as they re-enter homes and return to previously habitable areas.

On Friday, The New York Times reported that callers had reported 96 oil, chemical or sewage spills across southeast Texas from Aug. 26 to Sept. 3.

As water testing continues to determine the impact of these reported spills, public health officials are on the lookout for immediate health effects.  

A local Houston television station, KRPC, reported that a medic had contracted a skin infection commonly known as “flesh eating bacteria” after exposure to floodwater during a rescue operation.  

Dr. James McCarthy, the chief of emergency medicine in the Memorial Hermann Red Duke Trauma Institute, said the hospital has seen an uptick in soft tissue infections since the storm. That’s not surprising given that people are spending a lot of time in polluted floodwater as they escape their homes or rescue others, he said.

Moving forward, McCarthy said doctors are on the lookout for unusual pathogens and mosquito-borne illnesses.  

“This could be a tough environment for things like West Nile [virus] and other outbreaks,” he said.

But he also cautioned people not to panic and to ensure they are receiving accurate information.

At one point, he said, a rumor was circulating that anyone who was splashed with floodwater needed to get a tetanus shot. Only those who haven’t had one in ten years or who have been injured are advised to get a shot, he said.  

Hamilton said residents should remain vigilant, within reason.  

“You want to know how to clean properly, but we don’t want to be germaphobes,” she said. “Remember to eat, sleep and drink.”

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here. 

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