Harvey pounded the nation’s chemical epicenter. What’s in the foul-smelling floodwater left behind?

http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-houston-chemical-plant-20170831-story.html

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The pounding rains of Hurricane Harvey washed over the conduits, cooling towers, ethylene crackers and other esoteric equipment of the nation’s largest complex of chemical plants and petroleum refineries, leaving behind small lakes of brown, foul-smelling water whose contents are a mystery.

Broken tanks, factory fires and ruptured pipes are thought to have released a cocktail of toxic chemicals into the waters. Explosions that released thick black smoke were reported at the Arkema Inc. chemical plant, where floods knocked out the electricity, leaving the facility outside Houston without refrigeration needed to protect volatile chemicals.

Meanwhile, emissions into the air have soared as the petrochemical industry shut down and then started up chemical operations, a cycle that causes an uptick in releases.

The potential health problems were magnified by overflowing sewers, inoperative treatment plants and the residues of animal waste, including carcasses.

Nobody is sure how much long-term health impact, if any, will result from the tidal wave of toxins and bacteria that swept through the nation’s fourth largest city.

Exhaustive investigations by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Academy of Engineering after Hurricane Katrina, in which floodwaters languished in New Orleans for about six weeks, showed that toxic concentrations and the resulting exposures were too low to cause significant long-term health problems.

That festering flood caused a stench for weeks that left soldiers gagging for air as they flew helicopters 2,000 feet over the city. The Army Corps of Engineers had to pump the water out of New Orleans, much of which lies below sea level.

A report by the National Academy of Engineering in March 2006 said the floodwaters contained elevated levels of contaminants. The inorganic compounds were below drinking-water standards, while arsenic levels, attributed in part to lawn fertilizer, were above those standards.

The EPA took 1,800 samples of residue and soil from across the New Orleans area after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and found that generally “the sediments left behind by the flooding from the hurricanes are not expected to cause adverse health impacts to individuals returning to New Orleans.”

The situation is far different in Houston, where the floodwaters are receding much faster.

But because Houston is far more industrialized, Harvey could have a much larger potential for leaving a toxic trail.

Without question, air emissions rose significantly during and after the storm, said Elena Craft, a toxicologist and senior scientist at the Texas branch of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The industry shutdown and startup cycle released 2 million pounds of pollutants, equal to 40% of all the emissions from 2016, Craft said, based on reports the industry made to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“In a few days, we have had months of exposure,” Craft said.

Marathon Oil, for example, reported to the state that heavy rain had pounded the roof of a storage tank so hard that it tilted, exposing gasoline to the air.

The emissions reports also included such carcinogens and suspected carcinogens as benzene and butadiene.

Craft said that sewage treatment plants in Beaumont went off line. A pipe carrying anhydrous hydrogen chloride was compromised in La Porte. Harris County’s 26 federal Superfund toxic waste sites may have been affected, including one that contains dioxins from a former paper mill along the San Jacinto River.

The fire at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby released organic hydrogen peroxide, which officials said is an irritant but not toxic.

Tommy Newsom, who lives about 7 miles from the plant, said he felt fine but wondered what other chemicals might be involved. “Who knows how much of what they’re telling us is true?” he said.

“I think the wind’s in my favor,” said Newsom, a 60-year-old port worker, pointing to Texas state and U.S. flags at the entrance to his housing development.

Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s health program, said the situation in Houston is a perfect breeding ground for hepatitis and tetanus.

“The flood is so large and slow-moving and the area is packed with dirty industries that are poorly regulated. Because the oil and gas industries down here are not as safe, we are concerned those toxins and chemicals are leaking,” she said.

Texas regulators urged caution. “Floodwaters may contain many hazards, including infectious organisms, intestinal bacteria, and other disease agents,” the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said in a statement. “Precautions should be taken by anyone involved in cleanup activities or any others who may be exposed to floodwaters.”

The American Chemistry Council said its members are in constant communication with state and federal regulators about the status of their operations.

“Hurricane Harvey has presented extreme and unique challenges for the city of Houston and the surrounding areas in southeast Texas and Louisiana, warranting an unprecedented response effort, including that by local industry,” the trade group said in a statement.

The Looming Consequences of Breathing Mold

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/08/mold-city/538224/

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Flooding means health issues that unfold for years.

The flooding of Houston is a health catastrophe unfolding publicly in slow motion. Much of the country is watching as 50 inches of water rise around the chairs of residents in nursing homes and submerge semitrucks. Some 20 trillion gallons of water are pouring onto the urban plain, where developers have paved over the wetlands that would drain the water.

The toll on human life and health so far has been small relative to what the images suggest. Authorities have cited thirty known deaths as of Tuesday night, while 13,000 people have been rescued. President Donald Trump—who this month undid an Obama-era requirement that infrastructure projects be constructed to endure rising sea levels—offered swift reassurance on Twitter: “Major rescue operations underway!” and “Spirit of the people is incredible. Thanks!”

But the impact of hurricanes on health is not captured in the mortality and morbidity numbers in the days after the rain. This is typified by the inglorious problem of mold.

The surprising link between air pollution and Alzheimer’s disease

http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-air-pollution-alzheimers-20170131-story.html?utm_campaign=CHL%3A+Daily+Edition&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=41764605&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-9DiZmgGHX54LqTpQGsAm4ohgFFyJHWy6ijRJ-3gxyi-aPS9QNViqc7K33BgIAVc43xoyt9TPB1HdtN7c-F__ONriUMMQ&_hsmi=41764605

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With environmental regulations expected to come under heavy fire from the Trump administration, new research offers powerful evidence of a link between air pollution and dementia risk.

For older women, breathing air that is heavily polluted by vehicle exhaust and other sources of fine particulates nearly doubles the likelihood of developing dementia, finds a study published Tuesday. And the cognitive effects of air pollution are dramatically more pronounced in women who carry a genetic variant, known as APOE-e4, which puts them at higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.

In a nationwide study that tracked the cognitive health of women between the ages of 65 and 79 for 10 years, those who had the APOE-e4 variant were nearly three times more likely to develop dementia if they were exposed to high levels of air pollution than APOE-e4 carriers who were not.

Among carriers of that gene, older women exposed to heavy air pollution were close to four times likelier than those who breathed mostly clean air to develop “global cognitive decline” — a measurable loss of memory and reasoning skills short of dementia.

While scientists have long tallied the health costs of air pollution in asthma, lung disease and cardiovascular disease, the impact of air pollutants on brain health has only begun to come to light. This study gleans new insights into how, and how powerfully, a key component of urban smog scrambles the aging brain.

Published Tuesday in the journal Translational Psychiatry, the research looks at a large population of American women, at lab mice, and at brain tissue in petri dishes to establish a link between serious cognitive decline and the very fine particles of pollution emitted by motor vehicles, power plants and the burning of biomass products such as wood.

All three of these biomedical research methods suggest that exposure to high levels of fine air pollutants increases both dementia’s classic behavioral signs of disorientation and memory loss as well as its less obvious hallmarks. These include amyloid beta protein clumps in the brain and the die-off of cells in the brain’s hippocampus, a key center for memory formation.

 

Where Lead Lurks And Why Even Small Amounts Matter

http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/08/12/483079525/where-lead-lurks-and-why-even-small-amounts-matter?utm_campaign=KHN%3A+Daily+Health+Policy+Report&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=32858954&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-8kDCnnjDbfp4JvZ95fZBYFg0rvQnr0k1mC0p1B7O4jguEVJHjhzW0BsVUUUTFVZ8CkCycZO56aYhcnG_R04U8iDQ-JsA&_hsmi=32858954

Katherine Du for NPR

When There’s Lead Underground

When there is a problem with lead in drinking water, service lines are the most likely culprit. Service lines are like tiny straws that carry water from a utility’s water main, usually running below the street, to each building.

In older cities, many of them in the Midwest and Northeast, these service lines can be made of pure lead.

Wherever lead service lines are in place, there is a risk of water contamination. The toxic metal can leach into the water whenever something jostles the pipes, like nearby construction, a heavy truck coming down the road or when the water just sits still for too long.

Civil engineer Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who helped document the lead problems with water in Flint, calls lead service lines “ticking time bombs.”