Did Harvey Make Us Sick? Still More Questions Than Answers

"Every time you get sick you wonder. You say, ‘I feel like there is something wrong with me.'"

by Jenny Deam, Houston Chronicle / September 6, 2018

(TNS) — The third time Rodney Blair began to wade into Harvey floodwaters to get to his ruined house in the days after the storm, he was stopped by law enforcement.

“Excuse me, Sir,” an officer warned, “I advise you to not enter the water without proper protection.”

Blair was taken aback. No one had said anything before. He was wearing shorts, a T-shirt and swim shoes, the same thing he had worn the two other times when he spent hours in the three feet of foul, blackened water inside his west Houston home.

Until that moment, it didn’t occur to him to fear what could be lurking in the stew.

“It was gross, but beyond that I didn’t think about toxicity,” he said.

Get counted

Now, a year later, it’s hard to get the thought out of his mind.

“Every time you get sick, you wonder,” his wife, Donni, reminds him. “You say, ‘I feel like there is something wrong with me.’ ”

So the couple and their 11-year-old son, Raymond, joined the scores of flood victims across the region now being studied and tallied as researchers scramble to grasp the potentially immense health toll Harvey exacted.

While it could be years, if not decades, to know the final prognoses, some of the early evidence is troubling.

New findings by Rice University researchers shows the stagnant water inside some flooded homes carried indications of antibiotic-resistant bacteria up to 250 times higher than even the floodwater outside. The same markers for the bacteria were found in the sediment left behind weeks after the water receded.

The significance of the discovery is that such bacteria could lead to infections more difficult to treat, said Lauren Stadler, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice and lead investigator for the study.

“There is mounting evidence that these floodwaters, especially inside homes, present a real risk,” Stadler said last week.

Bacteria and more

Researchers trudged into the storm to capture samples as the rain fell last August and then for weeks afterward.

High levels of E. coli were also found in the Buffalo and Brays bayous which ultimately spilled into neighborhoods.

In flooded homes, it can be hard to isolate where contaminants come from. Sewage trapped in bathroom pipes, medicines in cabinets, cleaning supplies under sinks, and chemicals in garages all mix together to form a toxic brew.

But there is also the uniqueness of the Houston region which poses a different threat. Harvey’s flooding pried loose soil and chemicals from 13 Superfund sites and spread chemical seepage from the area’s vast oil and gas industry.

“We don’t know over someone’s life what that will do, especially in children,” said Melissa Brody, professor of medicine epidemiology and population sciences at Baylor College of Medicine. Brody is among those now studying people exposed to chemical-laced water or Harvey-tainted air.

“I’ve never done disaster research before,” she said, “But we all live in this area. We felt a responsibility to the community to understand what is going on.”

Researching Harvey health

At Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, there are now three separate Harvey health projects underway.

One, led by Brody and co-sponsored by the UTHealth School of Public Health and Oregon State University, gives flood victims high-tech rubber wristbands to wear for one week. The bracelets capture and measure chemicals excreted from the skin, giving researchers a peek at what is happening within. The wristbands are then returned to researchers in Oregon who will compile the findings.

Participants also swab the inside of their nose, spit into cups, and give fecal samples to identify and measure bacteria and fungi in their bodies. The first phase of the study, conducted just after the storm, had 173 participants. Those results have not yet been released. A repeat phase began Aug. 26 to check for possible health risks, new or lasting.

The Blairs are part of the study. They didn’t know about the first phase of Baylor’s testing, but were eager to sign up for the second.

“I feel like knowledge is power,” said Donni Blair.

Pregnancy and asthma

Simultaneously, another study is going on at the medical school to look at how contamination and stress from Harvey affected pregnant women and their babies.

Dr. Kjersti Aagaard, professor and vice chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, is currently compiling pregnancy data from more than 600 women “touched by Harvey” to measure the bacteria and fungi in their bodies to see if it was altered from toxic exposures.

Aagaard, whose specialty is maternal fetal medicine, was already working on a pregnancy study when Harvey hit and said she is now is able to create a broader baseline. Ultimately, she said, her study may shed light on whether Harvey contributed to pre-term births or other complications in mothers and their children.

She hopes to have results by early 2019.

A third research project is studying the impact of Harvey on African-Americans who suffer from asthma. A broader asthma study, led by Winifred J. Hamilton, director of environmental health service at Baylor’s medical school, was nearly complete when the storm struck. New questions were created and now researchers can compare results from before and after the storm to gauge whether people’s conditions worsened, Hamilton said. About 75 people are participating in the new phase of the asthma study.

Even those whose homes did not flood are part of the extended research because many people were still exposed to toxins, especially if they volunteered to help in flooded neighborhoods. Preliminary results of the asthma study are also expected next year.

Hidden ailments

Beyond the medical community, Houston’s Episcopal Health and Kaiser Family Foundation released a survey of 1,651 adults across 24 storm-affected Texas counties gauging recovery progress and attitudes at the one-year mark. It was the second survey conducted, the first at about three months after the storm.

About three in 10 people reported declines in their mental health since Harvey and six in 10 said someone in their household has a health condition that is new or worsening. Problems most reported were stress, asthma, sleeping problems, depression, rashes and other skin infections, headaches and allergies.

A spokesman for Episcopal Health Foundation said there is no current plan for additional surveys.

And therein lies the problem in reckoning disaster. Sometimes the most serious health problems can stay hidden for years, long after initial studies are complete.

So in April, the Hurricane Harvey Registry was launched. The registry, a joint venture of Rice University, the Houston Health Department and the Environmental Defense Fund, will collect and maintain information from those affected by the storm, including health effects. The effort has since grown to include Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties, as well as support from the private sector.

The goal is to track people over their lifetimes, said Elena Craft, an Austin-based senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund.

So far about 1,700 people have joined the free registry at https://harveyregistry.rice.edu and the hope is to reach 5,000 by the end of 2019, she said.

The Houston registry is modeled after one formed following the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Health registries are only truly meaningful if they track people over long periods of time, Craft said. As an example, she cited the 9/11 registry.

In the nearly two decades since the World Trade Center attacks, 9,300 people — about one in 10 on that health registry — have now been diagnosed with a cancer believed to be linked to toxic dust and debris exposure, according to the registry website and published reports. The number of cancer cases has tripled just since 2015.

A new normal

A year has now passed since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made a fateful decision to release water from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs.

The row of stately brick houses along Sea Smoke Lane had never flooded before but was suddenly in the water’s path. For 14 days, filthy water baked in the late summer heat inside the Blairs' home which sits between the two reservoirs. Once the water finally receded, multicolor speckles of mold began to appear on the walls like thrown confetti.

The couple set to work, sifting through the wreckage and demolishing what could not be saved. Gone were the shorts and T-shirts, replaced by protective coveralls, heavy gloves and respirators donated by a church. Still, the suits were not waterproof, and brackish water and silt often found skin, which, now in retrospect, is worrisome for the couple.

Volunteers descended from across the region and the country to flooded areas. They arrived at the Blairs' house as strangers, tearing out chunks of drywall the consistency of putty. A pyramid of rancid debris formed at the curb. Everyone on the block had one.

Over the next two months fans and dehumidifiers blew nonstop, airing out the shell of their first floor. The water-logged studs were soaked in anti-mold spray. Insulation was pulled from the attic; the plumbing and electrical wiring replaced. By Christmas, the family moved back into a construction zone.

To this day, they live on the second floor and the garage has become their kitchen. Chips and soup cans share shelf space with bleach and drywall primer. Without flood insurance, their savings and retirement accounts are gone and repairs have stalled. “We’re stuck,” the couple says. The Federal Emergency Management Agency cut them a check for $33,000. Replacement cabinets in the kitchen, bathrooms and pantry alone cost $30,000, eating up the relief check in one gulp.

Now when it rains, a terrible smell still rises from the foundation. “It’s like standing in a Port-a-potty and adding battery acid,” Donni Blair says.

Her husband sometimes has terrible headaches. Her son has a cough and congestion that will not clear. She has bouts of wheezing she says were never there before. Most irksome, though, are the odd memory lapses she said she’s been having.

Other people who flooded say they, too, have spells of absent-mindedness. They joke that it's “flood brain.” Donni figures it is just the stress of it all.

Researchers, however, say that one of the long-lasting health impacts can be cognitive.

Donni wants to stay positive. She does not believe the health study will uncover anything bad. Instead, she hopes it will do the opposite and offer reassurance that they will be fine. Someday soon.




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