The city of Houston is no longer in immediate danger from Hurricane Harvey. The waters have dried up and families no longer need to protect themselves from Harvey floods. However, an invisible war for Houston has just begun. The soldiers fighting for Houston residents are no longer firefighters, rescue operators, or police task forces: they are scientists and researchers.
Harvey caused terrible destruction to the city of Houston by washing away thousands of homes, flooding hundreds businesses, and affecting millions of residents; however, Harvey’s latest hazards are unseen to the naked eye. Oil refineries, waste treatment centers, and landfills are all cluttered with toxins, poisons, and bacteria. When floodwaters came into these areas, they took those toxins and spread them across Houston. While invisible, these remnants of Harvey are just as lethal as the rains that poured throughout Texas. In some sense, these risks are even deadlier than floodwaters because they hide in plain sight.
Thankfully, Houston is aware of this threat and is already looking to mitigate the danger.
The Soldiers for Science in Houston
The Houston Health Department has been conducting research on different “risk-sites” surrounding the Houston area. Scientists are collecting samples of water and earth from reservoirs, creeks, bayous, and rocks—searching for the toxins that have infiltrated the nature of Houston. “The most consistent issue we saw across the city were high bacteria levels, specifically high E. coli levels,” stated Lisa Montemayor, a health department researcher. She went on to say that most of the E. coli levels were in bayous across the city. Some of the bayous cleared up after a few days, but other bayous have yet to return to normal.
While E. coli is an important strand of bacteria to test and treat, other diseases and toxins are not as simple to dilute. Researchers have found traces of pollutants such as dioxins and miniscule pieces of metal near industrial structures. While completely safe to walk on, soils around these areas can remain harmful to humans for years to come.
Research predicts that in 20 years, there will be a significant increase in cancer cases within the Houston area. These cases will be connected to Hurricane Harvey and its impact on the Houston area.
This may come as a shock to Houston residents, but scientists are not surprised by the news. The Environmental Protection Agency has repeatedly dealt with communities that face health issues from environmental disaster. Just two months ago, a Houston superfund was found to have 2,300 times the necessary pollutants to require immediate cleanup by the EPA. This superfund was a health risk to anyone remotely close to the superfunds proximity. While this superfund was probably the worst in the Houston area, there are others that have yet to be treated that pose a threat to residents to this day.
The CEO of the Houston Advanced Research Center was right when she said that “the information we have right now is just the tip of the iceberg.” Cleanup efforts will take years to finish, but even then, the widespread effects of the floodwaters on the environment are irreversible. Still, researchers and scientists will do everything they can to mitigate pollutants effects on the population of Houston. These heroes are being aided by the city of Houston, the National Science Foundation, and other agencies that have awarded millions of dollars to research and cleanup. These efforts demonstrate the care that America has for the city of Houston, as well as the tenacity of the Houston community and its' residents.