For survivors of a disaster like Hurricane Harvey, the danger isn’t over when the waters recede. In most floods, especially those in a highly industrial — and polluted — area like Houston, the water can carry and then deposit other threats: dangerous bacteria, toxic chemicals from factories and waste sites, plus alligators and snakes.
Times reporters couldn’t do anything about the reptiles, but we wanted to warn people about the possibility of getting sick from nasty bacteria and hazardous pollutants. So shortly after the hurricane ended, we embarked on our own scientific analysis of the water in various Houston neighborhoods — the results of which led to an article that we published earlier this week. Our findings were worrisome.
The New York Times took this initiative due to a lack of available data. Neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would give us any information on what they were testing and what they had found. And while the Houston Health Department was doing some sampling of the floodwaters, it did not have any results to share yet.
Tara Parker-Pope, the editor of The Times’s Well column, suggested we organize our own tests. At first, we considered buying containers and filling them with water and sediment samples ourselves. But reporters are not scientists, and we wanted to make sure our data was accurate — and obtained in accordance with the best scientific practices.
We reached out to Winifred Hamilton, director of the Environmental Health Service at the Baylor College of Medicine, who put together a team that included Lauren Stadler and Qilin Li, researchers from Rice University; herself and Jesse Crain III from Baylor; and Loren Raun and Lisa Montemayor from the City of Houston.
Our agreement was that all information we gathered would become public.
We still needed someone to run the analysis. We called around to various labs and decided on A & B Labs, with an impeccable record and a willingness to analyze the samples quickly.
I won’t tell you how much it cost, in case our executive editor is reading this. Celia Dugger, The Times’s health and science editor, gave us a sizable budget. She was concerned that nobody yet knew what was in the water, and residents were already returning home in some neighborhoods to start cleaning up.
On Monday, Sept. 4, I flew to Houston, where I met my colleague Jack Healy, The Times’s Rocky Mountain correspondent, who had been covering the hurricane virtually since it started.
Tuesday morning, we picked up the sterile containers from the lab and put on our waders, goggles, masks and gloves. Jack and his team headed east to the Channelview neighborhood, along the San Jacinto River. We wanted to test there because it was downstream from several Superfund sites, and residents had reported some leaks.
I went west, to the Clayton Homes public housing complex, in downtown Houston, and then to a suburban area around the Houston Energy Corridor. Ms. Montemayor kindly lent us a boat, and the researchers sailed down along Briarhills Parkway.
What we didn’t know then, because it wasn’t announced by the fire department until Saturday, was that quite a few wastewater treatment plants had been flooded, and had released raw sewage that was carried down the Buffalo Bayou and into people’s houses. Our tests also showed that, along the way, the sewage picked up lead, arsenic, chromium and other stuff you don’t want your kids to play in.
Outside a house at the Clayton Homes complex, there were piles of debris — mattresses, rugs, stuffed animals, algebra books and family photos — atop an upside-down refrigerator.
Inside, there was an unbelievable stench. I took one step and turned around. (Even with a mask, breathing made my throat burn.) But the researchers were stoic and spent an hour taking samples, providing us with the first measure of toxicity inside a flooded house.
The results were terrible: The level of E. coli (an indication of fecal contamination from the sewage) was 135 times what is generally considered safe, and there were raised levels of lead and other hazardous metals. Meanwhile, Jack and his team found a truly dangerous threat: liquid mercury beads, spread out over the sand.
The next day, we went out with a team from Texas A & M, which sampled around Superfund sites, but we are still waiting for those results. Stay tuned for another article when we receive them.
We relied on one crucial person to double-check the data: Charlotte Smith, a microbiologist and water specialist at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health. Ms. Smith generously spent much of her weekend reading hundreds of pages of test data, from our quality control documents to the test results.
We would like readers to know how grateful we are to Ms. Smith, and to other scientists who help make our work possible.