City health officials survey families in ‘cancer cluster’ neighborhoods

HOUSTON – Dozens of volunteers with the Houston Health Department along with community leaders in the Fifth Ward walked the streets of the area deemed the ‘Cancer Cluster,’ in hopes to acquire official information from the community about the residents’ health conditions and concerns.

This comes after an unnerving study by the Texas Department of State Health Services revealed that there was a significant uptick in cancer cases in the area, which sits right next to an old railroad facility now owned by Union Pacific.

Why the Survey Matters

“We know that the contaminants in the groundwater plume are carcinogenic and we know that this community has a cancer cluster—that means elevated cancer cases—and the TCEQ actually requested the cancer cluster analysis,” Dr. Lauren Hopkins, the Houston Health Department’s Chief Environmental Science Officer, said.

Hopkins said they know that there is a carcinogenic chemical plume contaminating underground water underneath approximately 110 homes in Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens.

“Right now, we know there is a cancer cluster here, and we know there is a groundwater plume, but there has not been a study that has looked at linking those two,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins maintains that these surveys are the only way to get concrete, measurable information from the residents themselves and says the information could prove useful in future discussions about the next steps and potential solutions for these residents.

‘Creosote Killed Me”

Residents from the Fifth Ward on Lavender Street created a community group called IMPACT Greater Fifth Ward to help organize a community response to the study and growing concerned. They wore shirts that read: “Cresote killed me.”

Leisa Glenn, a community leader, pointed to the name on her shirt.

"'Lucille Long,’ that’s my mother’s name. She died of two cancers,” she said.

“’Johnny Ellis’… my grandfather,” said another community leader and Lavender Street resident, Sandra Edwards, pointing to a name on her shirt.

Creosote is a chemical substance now known to cause cancer. It was used to treat wooden rail ties at the old railroad facility, now owned by Union Pacific, right across Liberty Rd and Lavender St.

The unnerving study by the Texas Department of State Health Services deemed the neighborhood a cancer cluster saying its findings show significantly more cases of lung, bronchus, esophagus and larynx cancers—the same cancers that happened to be linked with Creosote exposure.

A Community in Action

The study sparked a fiery response from Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee, as well as Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, the Houston Health Department and community groups.

IMPACT Greater Houston and the Houston Health Department informed residents about the community meetings on January 13 and February 10, when the Houston Health Department plans to release the results of Saturday’s survey.

“We’re going through 5th Ward asking the community of what type of cancer, how many people that live in their house,” Glenn explained.

Jackson-Lee is also working with the state and federal officials and planning a large-scale stakeholder meeting on January 21 in the Fifth Ward at 7 p.m. The location will be announced at a later date, according to Jackson-Lee.

“We want to reach out to 1000+ people,” Jackson-Lee said.

Jackson-Lee mentioned that Union Pacific is invited and is strongly expected and encouraged to attend. She also mentioned that the Center for Disease Control, TCEQ, and even Erin Brokovich, a renown environmental activist, are also expected to attend. Members of the community are all invited.

“I’m looking forward to them taking care of this. This has been long-awaited. Waking up in the morning with burning eyes, burning throats, (and) can’t hardly breath,” Glenn said.