Cancer cluster found in Fifth Ward, Kashmere Gardens

Residents demand action to clean up cancer-causing chemical

Neighbors in Fifth Ward community believe the state has been slow to react to complaints about a chemical used in a nearby railyard that could be the reason for the higher than normal cancer incidents in the community.

HOUSTON – A report conducted by the Texas Department of State Health Services has confirmed a cancer cluster in northeast Houston.

Significantly higher than normal diagnoses of the deadly disease were found among residents of the Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens neighborhoods, the study confirmed.

While the findings underscore the problem, residents have long argued not much has been done about it, particularly the cleanup of a cancer-causing chemical that has seeped into the ground.

Findings: ‘Statistically significantly greater than expected’

The report, which was completed in August, examined communities within ten census tracts in northeast Houston, primarily in the city’s historic Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens neighborhoods. The area tested was selected by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, following a meeting called by residents in April to address what they had long feared were higher than normal rates of cancer among one another.

The report analyzed data from the Texas Cancer Registry over a 17-year period, from 2000 to 2016. Researchers compared the occurrence of cancer in the area to “what would be expected for the area based on cancer rates in Texas,” the report read.

“Based on cancer rates in Texas, lung and bronchus, esophagus, and larynx cancers were statistically significantly greater than expected,” the report concluded.

Neighbors: ‘Cancer cluster’ tells part of of the story

Leisa Glenn smiled as she walked along Lavender Street, her memories unblemished by sight of the street’s current view: boarded-up windows and doors, overgrown grass to homes long abandoned. Lavender Street was home.

“It was just a street full of life,” Glenn said, remembering pick-up basketball games on the dead-end street, Ms. Youngblood’s garden which Youngblood, a teacher, toiled daily, community barbecues -- a neighborhood.

“Lavender Street was a whole street full of people on this here street and then after all the contamination and explosion, half of the people -- all of the people died of cancer to be honest,” Glenn said.

Including Ms. Youngblood, Glenn said, and Ms. Youngblood’s son. The disease later claimed Glenn’s mother, Lucill, in 2005.

Glenn has since moved away from the neighborhood, although she comes back to check on longtime friends like Sandra Edwards. Edwards lives across the street from the home in which Glenn was raised. Edwards’ dad, Johnnie, built their family home. Cancer claimed his life in 2010.

The sleepy stretch of Lavender Street is accessed by Liberty Road, which is home to a fenced-in lot which neighbors said housed the rail yard that’s to blame for their deadly dilemma.

Creosote and the railroad

Ground soil in areas near the now-shuttered rail yard has tested positive for creosote: a cancer-causing chemical once used to treat wooden rail ties. Railroad employees would treat the ties in the yard. They stopped doing so in the 1980’s. Over time, however, the chemical has seeped into the ground, creating a plume that spread.

Sandra Edwards said she long complained about the quality of drinking water and what seemed to be a high number of people with cancer on Lavender Street. She said she got her answer in 2014 when Union Pacific, which now owns the railroad, notified her and others of high levels of creosote contamination in the ground.

“Our neighborhood is contaminated from Union Pacific,” Edwards insisted. She said the state’s report confirms a reality she and others have known for years.

“Since (Union Pacific has) been knowing this information, you sit on it for two decades, now you need to come out here and clean this neighborhood up,” she said.

Since 2014, neighbors have formed an organization called Impact Greater Fifth Ward. The group meets monthly with a goal of spreading awareness about what residents suspect has been killing them.

They said Union Pacific has not confirmed it would clean up the contamination of creosote and stop the ground plume from spreading.

Attorneys have called on TCEQ to push Union Pacific because they fear the ground plume of creosote is spreading.

“What actors like Union Pacific might try to do and what they’re trying to do at this point is to really justify in front of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that the waste is there but it doesn’t present any danger,” said Rodrigo Cantu, an attorney with the environmental justice team at Lone Star Legal Aid.

Cantu represents Impact Fifth Ward and its push for answers about creosote cleanup and cancer.

Houston’s Department of Health is also concerned about the cancer rate and its relation to creosote contamination. Any enforcement of cleanup or issuance of a penalty, however, would come from the state, said Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer at the Houston Health Department.

The city has conducted several tests of water in the area.

“We did sample their drinking water and we found it to be clean, which is a big relief to the community,” Hopkins said. The health department also sampled surface water drainage at the edge of the rail yard site. Creosote contaminates were found there, Hopkins said.

“The community has asked us to help them with a health survey that they want to conduct door to door,” Hopkins said, noting the potential for greater diagnoses among former residents who moved away from the neighborhood.

What’s next?

The state’s report does not draw a direct line between high cancer rates in the neighborhood and creosote contamination. That’s subject to further research.

The report concluded the next step is to “evaluate the feasibility of performing an epidemiologic study to examine if exposure to a specific risk factor is associated with the suspected cancer cluster.” From there, an epidemiologic study would be conducted, if necessary, the report stated.

However, Cantu said the correlation is clear and a study must be conducted sooner rather than later.

Edwards agreed. Hurricane Harvey all but ruined the home her dad built for their family. She’s still in the process of rebuilding it and wants to remain in the community she’s called home as long as she can remember.

“My dad was was a carpenter,” Edwards said, standing in front of her home. “Harvey came and took it from me. So I’m putting it back together."

Statement from Union Pacific

Union Pacific spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza responded to KPRC 2’s request for comment Friday with the following written statement:

“Union Pacific understands the community is concerned and is reaching out to the Texas Department of Health for more information about its findings. We will continue to consult with all regulatory agencies and consider their input as we work in coordination with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Union Pacific will also continue communicating with the community."

About the Author:

Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. NOLA born and bred, though #HoustonStrong, with stops in Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in along the way.