The Chemical Dangers In Houston's Manchester Neighborhood

Sep 2, 2017
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And authorities are continuing to watch the Arkema chemical plant north of Houston. Multiple fires at the plant, which was damaged by floods, have drawn attention to the public health hazards posed by the region's enormous chemical and refining industries. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports that the risk is especially acute for those who live near industrial areas.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: The Houston area has one of the largest concentrations of petrochemical manufacturing in the world. The industry isn't hiding. Drive 15 minutes out of downtown, and the tanks and towers loom up. Tanker trucks rumble by...

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC NOISE)

HERSHER: ...Right next to houses.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

ARIANDA DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

HERSHER: Eighteen-year-old Arianda Diaz and her father Sotero Carrizal say they've noticed pollution in their east Houston neighborhood, Manchester.

SOTERO CARRIZAL: (Speaking Spanish).

DIAZ: Yeah. Oh, yeah, I was sick from asthma because of it, too.

HERSHER: Oh, really?

DIAZ: Yeah, I've gotten sick from it.

HERSHER: Manchester is surrounded by petrochemical plants. A refinery flanks one side. There's a metal recycling plant on another and row upon row of chemical storage tanks next to that. Smokestacks rise behind playgrounds. Compared to elsewhere in Houston, houses are comparatively inexpensive. And like most people in the neighborhood, Carrizal has lived there a long time, 40 years.

CARRIZAL: (Speaking Spanish).

DIAZ: Like, a lot of people have died from cancer because of the factories. Like, we rent out the house next door to, like, people. And, like, he died from cancer because of this.

HERSHER: It's difficult to link a single case of cancer to pollution. But the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental nonprofit, found residents in Manchester are at least 24 percent more likely to develop cancer or respiratory illnesses than residents of wealthy neighborhoods in Houston. And that risk is under normal circumstances - before the flood, which has public health experts worried.

KAHLER STONE: Oh, this is perfect.

GASTON CASILLAS: Yeah.

STONE: You never thought you'd like at mud like good or bad. (Laughter) Yeah.

HERSHER: Kahler Stone and Gaston Casillas are part of a toxicology and epidemiology team from Texas A&M that visited the neighborhood on Friday. Manchester was actually spared serious flooding but was surrounded by high water like a moat. Stone and Casillas are crouching in a ditch filled with mud, water and trash. There's an oily sheen on everything.

STONE: We're taking soil and mud and water samples throughout the whole neighborhood. And we're looking for any kind of contamination due to the extra water that's come through.

HERSHER: They're testing for heavy metals, lead, arsenic, as well as other potentially dangerous chemicals associated with petroleum. Jennifer Horney leads the A&M team.

JENNIFER HORNEY: There are 400 chemicals in petroleum. And so people are never going to be exposed to just one at a time. So we're trying to come up with rapid ways that we can assess what - if someone's exposed to 80 chemicals at a time, what might be the health impact of that without having to look at each one separately?

HERSHER: She and her team were already studying the neighborhood before Harvey. Now with contaminated floodwaters and air pollution from refineries shutting down and restarting, their work has taken on new urgency. They're working overtime to get results from Friday's testing done by next week. And Horney says problems with contamination post-Harvey go far beyond Houston. The so-called Chemical Coast stretches a long way.

HORNEY: I think one of the concerns is that some of the areas that are outside of Houston that are also the home of these large petrochemical and industrial sites will be left out because the response will focus on the city of Houston because there are just so many people here.

HERSHER: But she's concerned that a smaller community could be hard-hit by widespread health problems or the loss of livestock. What's clear is that, even as the water recedes, the pollution will remain. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.