Harvey Floodwaters Still Pose Significant Health Threat, Testing Shows

Pam Wright
Published: September 13, 2017

It's been nearly three weeks since Harvey hovered over south Texas, dumping historic amounts of rain that left Houston and the surrounding region flooded for weeks. Waters have receded in most places but what remains contains toxic levels of contaminants, new tests reveal.

Testing of floodwaters organized by the New York Times and conducted by Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University indicates that some Houston neighborhoods have dangerous levels of harmful contaminants, including lead, arsenic and bacteria like E. coli.

In one apartment complex along Houston's Buffalo Bayou, levels of E. coli, which comes from fecal matter, were tested in one kitchen at levels 135 times what is considered safe.

 “There’s pretty clearly sewage contamination, and it’s more concentrated inside the home than outside the home,” Lauren Stadler, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, told the New York Times.

Some Houston residents who have returned to their homes have reported a stench in the air that made them feel sick.

Brad Greer, 49, said he became ill after developing infections on both of his legs. After a course of antibiotics failed to halt the infection, Greer was taken to the emergency room at Houston Methodist for an intravenous drip and more antibiotics. Stories like his are common. 

The team that tested the waters warn residents to refrain from wading through waters and to take precautions.

“If people have bad headaches, respiratory problems, swelling of a limb or a bad rash, go see a doctor right away,” Winifred Hamilton, the environmental health service director at Baylor College of Medicine, told the New York Times. “Don’t assume it will go away on its own.”

Mold is another concern, the team said.

“Mold is taking off all over the city,” Winifred Hamilton, director of the Environmental Health Service at Baylor College of Medicine and a member of the testing group, told the Times. “People with allergies or asthma are particularly sensitive to it. If people have bad headaches, respiratory problems, swelling of a limb or a bad rash, go see a doctor right away. Don’t assume it will go away on its own.’’

(MORE: Irma's Staggering Toll)

Hamilton said people should wear a mask, goggles, gloves and rubber boots as they try to clean and repair their houses.

"II would change my clothes immediately after leaving the house, and put them in the wash with nothing else," she said, noting that children should be watched carefully.

“We have a lot of what looks like sand, like something you might want to make a castle of,” she said. “But this is not clean sand, this is sludge sediment.”

“Don’t let your children play in sediment from the flood. We don’t want children playing in lead.”

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

Featured Blogs

Meteorology of Saturday's Colombian Flood Disaster That Killed 254

By Dr. Jeff Masters
April 3, 2017

At least 254 people were killed in the in the city of Mocoa (population 40,000) in southwest Colombia near the border of Ecuador early Saturday, when torrential rains triggered a debris flow on a nearby mountain that surged into the town as a huge wall of water carrying tons of mud and debris. The disaster is the fourth deadliest weather-related disaster in Colombia’s recorded history.

Iconic American Destination Virtually Isolated for Rest of Year

By Christopher C. Burt
March 24, 2017

Half of the village of Big Sur, on the coast of central California, has lost its only access to the north following the demolition of the flood-damaged Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge along State Route 1 (also Rt. 1 or SR 1) on March 19. Although Rt. 1 to the south of Big Sur has reopened to traffic (after mud and rock slides were cleared) it is a long 70-mile journey along the windy but spectacular highway to Cambria, the next town of any significance where supplies can be had. CalTrans (California Department of Transportation) estimates it will take 6-9 months to rebuild a new bridge over the canyon.

An extraordinary meteorological event; was one of its results a 1000-year flood?

By Stu Ostro
October 5, 2015

The confluence of meteorological ingredients the first weekend in October 2015 resulted in an extraordinary weather event with severe impacts. Was one of them a 1000-year flood?

Why the Arrest of a Science-Loving 14-year-old Matters

By Shaun Tanner
September 16, 2015

By now, many of you have heard or read about the arrest of Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old high school student from Irving, Texas. Ahmed was arrested because school officials called the police after he showed one of his teachers his homemade clock. Mistaken for a bomb, Ahmed was taken into custody, interrogated, shamed, suspended (still on suspension today, Wednesday), and reprimanded. All of this after it has been found that the "device" he brought to school was indeed, a homemade clock.