Arsenic, lead, fecal matter, benzene, household chemicals, mosquito spray, and who knows what else is contaminating the Houston floodwater and air.
With the recent landfall of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the United States marked an important and frightening milestone. In 166 years of weather recordkeeping, this is the first time two Category 4 Atlantic hurricanes made landfall during the same year. With winds ranging from 130-156 miles per hour, Category 4 hurricanes pack a destructive punch. Nowadays, though, the dangerous effects of such large storms don’t blow away with the weakening winds. Some of it is our own fault, and it’s fouling Houston floodwater and air long after Harvey blew out of town.
Even before the industrial era, deadly hurricanes destroyed homes and sank ships. A Category 4 that hit Galveston in 1900, killing 6,000-12,000 people, is considered the deadliest storm in American history. The Galveston storm awakened the Weather Bureau (the 10-year-old precursor to the National Weather Service) to the need for better communication about weather tracking and prediction. In 1900, however, the Texas oil industry was still in diapers. Spindletop wouldn’t start gushing oil until January of 1901, kicking into high gear the industry that would poison Houston floodwater more than a hundred years later.
As Harvey battered the Texas gulf coast and Houston floodwater started to rise, what gushed through the streets and seeped into peoples’ homes wasn’t the same water as they might have expected in 1900. According to a report by the New York Times, which sponsored independent testing of the Houston floodwater by teams from Baylor Medical College and Rice University, the water is contaminated by E. coli bacteria and toxic industrial chemicals.
E. coli, which came from fecal matter flushed out of the sewage treatment system by the Houston floodwater, was found to be scandalously plentiful, especially inside homes where the warm water festered for days. Residents also came down with mysterious rashes and infections near places where the skin was broken by cuts or blisters. Because local authorities haven’t been particularly thorough in notifying Houston area residents about potential contamination, residents have been wading into long-flooded homes to salvage belongings and kids are splashing around in the Houston floodwater for fun, despite the danger.
The children have also been playing in “sand,” or at least what looks like sand. It’s sludge sediment, containing lead, arsenic, and other toxic heavy metals, washed into homes by the flooding.
It’s not just E. coli and lead, either. Houston floodwater is chock full of all the insecticides, weed killer, and other household chemicals that people kept in their cabinets and garages, but which was set free to flow and mingle by Hurricane Harvey.
That much water pooling in the area also starts to cause its own problems, such as homes beginning to sprout various colors of mold and a mosquito epidemic. The Pentagon itself is stepping in to assist with the latter problem, deploying C-130H Sprayers from the Air Force Reserve’s 910th Airlift Wing to spray down over six million acres with Dabrom in order to kill mosquitoes (and harm whatever else it hits). Dabrom contains Naled, made by Sumimoto Chemical Corporation (one of Monsanto’s business partners), which is a neurotoxin that’s currently banned in Europe and, according to a Harvard study, responsible for helping to kill off the bee population.
Harvey’s chemical stew extends into the Houston air. Besides insecticides, the people of Houston must also contend with elevated levels of benzene, a carcinogen escaping from the caved-in tank at a Valero refinery. (The irony is thick as benzene in the air when Texas needs to ask California for help managing their pollution problem.) Because Houston’s lax zoning regulations let the free market generally decide where water treatment plants and refineries are built, it’s the people who live in low income areas who have been hit the hardest with the airborne benzene, flooded Superfund sites, and escaping crude oil in the Houston floodwater. Since this is where a lot of elderly people and families with children live, especially those who may not be able to afford decent medical care, this is a recipe for generational disaster. Perhaps that’s why the EPA is set to close their Houston lab: because if we ignore the problem, maybe it will go away?
While our culture’s insatiable hunger for petroleum products set up the perfect conditions for a chemical stew in the Houston floodwater, and profits from the oil industry helped drive rapid growth and lax regulation near toxic industrial sites and the Houston area generally, it’s always the poor folks who get the short end of the oil-soaked stick. Which is worse, I wonder? Cancer and childhood asthma on top of bailing out your toilet-water filled home, or being told that you can never come back?
By these measures, the Galveston hurricane of 1900 seems almost pristine.