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Texas deals with public health aftermath of Harvey

Stuart Spear07/09/2017 - 10:53

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Harvey wreaking havoc across Texas
Harvey wreaking havoc across Texas

As the Hurricane Harvey rains ease Texas is trying to assess the environmental consequences of a category 4 storm slamming into America’s petrochemical heartland.

While the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) is dealing with legion public health risks posed by the flood waters agency staff are also having to address levels of chemical contamination given the type of industrial processes across the region.

The most recent concern, says the EPA, relates to at least 13 flooded toxic waste sites that are known to contain a cocktail of toxic and carcinogenic compounds from past industrial activity.

The 13 plants contain a legacy of industrial waste from petrochemical companies, acid compounds, solvents and pesticides.

So far EPA staff have been unable to enter the sites safely to assess the scale of public health risk but are ready to do so as soon as the waters recede.

Houston lies at the heart of America’s oil and chemical industry and is home to around 500 industrial sites. Damaged refineries and oil facilities are estimated to have released two million pounds of hazardous chemicals into the atmosphere.

‘We’re very concerned about the long-term implications of some of the emissions,’ Elena Craft, senior health scientist at the Environmental Defence Fund in Texas, told the NY Times.

‘As well as the flooding and the impact on pipelines, there’s underground and aboveground storage tanks, it’s a suite of threats.’

The fear is that with 24.5 trillion gallons unloaded into the affected areas pollutants will have been swept from their source to surrounding areas.

In terms of specific chemical sources residents within 1.5 miles of a chemical plant in Crosby have been evacuated due to generator failure at the plant possibly resulting in chemicals heating and becoming explosive.

The destruction of the roof of a tank at Exxon Mobil’s Baytown plant, America’s second largest refinery, has led to the release of hazardous chemicals.

At another refinery in Beaumont equipment that captures and burns sulphur dioxide has been destroyed releasing SO2 into the atmosphere.   

Another refinery is known to have released 100,000 pounds of carbon monoxide, 22,000 pounds of nitrogen oxide, 32,000 pounds of ethylene, 11,000 pounds of propane and a couple of thousand pound of 1.3-butadiene, benzene and butane into the environment.

The aftermath of the flooding and destruction is also posing a serious public health risk.

In particular there are concerns about the hundreds of thousands in the Houston area that get their drinking supplies from private wells likely to have been contaminated by flood waters.

Mosquito born disease have so far not been a problem with larvae having been swept into the Gulf of Mexico. The worry is in the recovery phase water pools will host a new population.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina it took around a year for a dangerous upsurge in West Nile Virus spread by mosquitos to hit the affected regions of Louisiana and Mississippi.

Another concern is disease spread in the shelters being used as temporary accommodation. ‘The big thing that I am worried about in norovirus,’ said Dr Pesse, Houston’s chief medical officer. ‘That’s the “cruise ship virus” – with a lot of people in a small space it can spread quickly.’

While public health officials are anticipating an increase in gastrointestinal problems from the usual suspect bacteria that breed in floodwaters they are particularly looking out for Vibrio vulnificus, found in the Gulf of Mexico.

The bacteria survives in warm sea water and can be extremely harmful if ingested or coming into contact with a wound. Infection can lead to amputation.

Vibriosis causes an estimated 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths in America each year.    


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