Channel 2 Investigates collects water samples in some areas during Harvey

Lab results show high levels of E. coli, lead, arsenic

HOUSTON – It was Houston versus Harvey. Water covered much of our city for days. While families waded, floated and boated out of harm's way, in between reports, Channel 2 Investigates collected water samples in some of the hardest-hit areas.

Channel 2 Investigates didn't know that at the same time, researchers from Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University, the Houston Health Department and the New York Times were doing the same.

"We really wanted to get in there while the houses were still flooded so that we could actually get samples of that floodwater,” said Dr. Lauren Stadler, of Rice University.

More than a dozen water samples were collected for testing from downtown Houston along Buffalo Bayou, inside and outside the Clayton Homes public housing project, in west Houston near the Energy Corridor and Memorial areas and in east Houston near the San Jacinto River.

"There are many, many contaminants in the floodwaters both biological and chemical," said Houston's Chief Medical Officer, Dr. David Persse.

Lab results showed high levels of E. coli, lead and arsenic. None of those findings surprised Persse.

"There's dog stool. There's raccoon stool," Persse said. "Once the first toilet gets breached, there's now human stool in there too."

The New York Times' testing found E. coli contamination at a level more than 4 times considered safe in the Energy Corridor and in standing water inside one family's living room at Clayton Homes, levels 135 times that considered safe.

Of the areas Channel 2 tested, lab results revealed the highest level of E. coli in Nottingham 8. The sample Channel 2 took from a flooded driveway contained E. coli contamination levels four times higher than what's considered safe for swimming.

"We saw significantly higher concentrations inside the homes than outside the homes," Stadler said.

Stadler helped collect the samples for the Times' tests and said the bacteria is thriving in moist, humid, flooded homes.

"These warm conditions, E. coli especially, they like these warm conditions," Stadler said. "They grow much faster in these conditions."

It's a warning to homeowners returning to clean up.

"My recommendation is those things you can throw out, the carpet, the furniture, the toys, whatever it is -- if it got dirty, you are best off getting rid of it," Persse said.

Wear masks, gloves, long sleeves and pants. Take those clothes off as soon as you leave the house and wash them separately in hot water.

"I was in a kayak," John Atkins said. "I wasn't wading around in the water by any means."

Atkins is a first responder who rescued many of his neighbors. He contracted a flesh-eating bacteria.

"Next thing I knew there was a small, little-tiny bite," he said. "On Tuesday, a little-tiny bite that by Tuesday night grew to about a nickel-size."

Even after the water is all gone, there is some danger in what it left behind.

The fine sand covering sidewalks, floors and the entire River Grove Park in Kingwood may be filled with chemical toxins. Some sediment tests show high levels of lead and arsenic in other parts of Houston, but not all of the lab results are back yet.

"What we have less of a handle on are the long-term effects from the chemicals," Persse said.

"That's really what our goal long-term is," Stadler said. "Can we do a better job at protecting public health with this knowledge of exposure?"

Researchers are now starting studies that could track health issues in people that live in areas with high levels of contaminants over the next 10 to 15 years. For now, you can keep your family safe by keeping children and anyone with a weakened immune system away from the sediment and sand. Be careful working in flooded homes. A nick, cut or scrape can still become easily infected from contaminants.

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