What’s in the water?

Pollution in Post-Harvey Houston


In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Houston residents are concerned about contaminants in the lingering floodwaters, and rightly so—the composition of the aqueous mélange is largely unknown.

Both government officials and academics are currently working to determine the specific contaminants and concentrations that the storm’s extreme winds and rains stirred up. With extensive laboratory testing, they will measure levels of E. coli bacteria, fecal coliform, organic compounds, pesticides, toxic heavy metals, and other potentially toxic pollutants that have leached from septic tanks and nearby Superfund sites.

They are challenged, however, to collect enough samples from disparate areas to draw significant conclusions. Thus far, researchers conducting independent water sampling have discovered high levels of E. coli bacteria. In some areas, they found concentrations to be more than 100 times the rate of EPA’s allowable level—a circumstance that they explain is common in post-flood conditions.

This testing is critical as a means of evaluating the potential impact to area residents.  A reported 168 Texas water systems are impacted by the floodwaters and remain under boil advisories. 50 are shut down completely, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Meanwhile, the US Coast Guard and EPA are currently working with Texas state officials to clean up oil and chemicals spilled from a dozen industrial facilities. To be on the safe side, public health officials are encouraging property owners to consider their private wells to be contaminated until proven otherwise with thorough testing.

As the Texas Tribune reported, “Low-income and minority communities could be particularly impacted. An analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity released last week found that nine of 16 flooded Superfund sites are in neighborhoods where a majority of residents are minority or of low income.”

“We’re trying to get a good picture of what’s in the water,” said Latrice Babin, the deputy director of pollution control for Harris County. But she explained that the agency’s 10 water samplers are struggling to complete testing of industrial sites and wastewater treatment facilities.

What suggestions do you have for a systematic water evaluation plan? WE_bug_web

  • Jonathan Frodge.

    first, assume the worst- the water is not safe for drinking, probably in most locations not safe for wading. Unfortunately, wading is probably unavoidable so anyone in the water should assume it is potentially harmful. I would avoid taking bacteria samples as most analysis would probably exceed appropriate holding times, and just assume for now that, yes, it’s in the water. Bacteria sampling can wait until drinking water facilities are back on line. I would concentrate on collecting samples to evaluate the organic and petroleum pollution which may have more long term health effects.

    • This sounds like a very wise approach. Evaluating contaminants that could lead to long-term health effects seems like a logical first priority. Thank you for offering these insights.

  • Ed Armstrong.

    Humbly suggest the Administration declare a truce in its war on EPA and think about what its proposed Draconian cuts would do to programs in the areas of superfund, grants to cities to monitor drinking water, civil enforcement, climate impacts, etc. have on that agency’s ability to react to crises like this.

  • belinda navas izquierdo.

    compartir la opinión de J. Frodge. Asegurar la calidad del agua de consumo (potable) en los 2 grupos de componentes de su matriz, químico y microbiologico, alterados por incorporación de sedimentos tras la inundacion, generando la superación de valores paramétricos establecidos del control de calidad. La garantia sanitaria del agua de consumo, asociada al sistema de producion en ETAP y buen estado de las redes de distribución, en alta y baja, requerirá tiempo. Los componentes químicos persistentes (orgánicos), tóxicos & venenosos (inorgánicos) representan el mayor riesgo de calidad del agua de consumo. Cubrir las necesidades con instalación de ETAP’s portátiles, camiones cisterna y agua embotellada, és la solución a corto hasta el restablecimiento de la infraestructura de abastecimiento a la población

    • Gracias por sus comentarios. Estoy totalmente de acuerdo, Belinda. Me parece una vision muy logica.

  • Dr terence Lewis.

    My advice is to Boil all water for at least 30 minutes let cool then if practical stor in the fridge


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