A 2017 still life of a Houston home near the Addicks and Barker reservoirs that took in water during Hurricane Harvey.

Earth Day 2020: A healthy planet means healthier people

Flooding exposes citizens to toxins and creates respiratory problems

Earth Day 2020: A healthy planet means healthier people

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Climate action, the theme of Earth Day 2020, calls on citizens to help protect and restore the planet.

As medical and environmental experts know, a healthy planet means healthier people.

In Houston, frequent and severe natural disasters have had a profound impact on the physical and mental health of residents.

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“Climate change is happening—the scientific evidence is there and we need to act on that scientific evidence,” said Marie Lynn Miranda, Ph.D., director of the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative and professor of statistics at Rice University. “The biggest concern for Houston in the past few years has been flooding. Hurricane Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda flooded people’s homes, left contaminated waters and there are all kinds of things people are exposed to.”

The homes and areas that have been flooded are more likely to see bacteria and mold blooming in their vicinity, she added, and those exposures are detrimental to people’s lungs and respiratory health.

Melissa Bondy, Ph.D., hit the ground running after Hurricane Harvey tore through the city in August 2017. At the time, she was professor and section head of epidemiology and population sciences at Baylor College of Medicine. She and her team distributed wristbands to individuals in Addicks, Baytown, Bellaire/Meyerland and East Houston to track the levels of toxins they were exposed to in the flood waters.

Study participants complained of having allergic reactions, sinus, throat and eye irritation, headaches, rashes, chest pain and intensely heightened levels of stress even one year after the storm, according to Bondy, now associate director of population sciences at the Stanford Cancer Institute. The wristbands measured more than 1,500 different chemicals—pesticides, pharmaceutical chemicals, industrial chemicals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), endocrine disruptors, dioxins and furans, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), flame retardants and personal care products. On average, 26 chemicals were found in each wristband.

“The health issues may become the driving force for change,” said Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (SSPEED) at Rice University and director of Rice’s undergraduate minor in energy and water sustainability. “All wastes follow runoff—flooded sewage plants, saturated contaminated soils, overturned storage vessels, car engine leakage—and end up in the flood plains.”

Because downtown Houston sits just 50 feet above sea level, developers and city officials need to consider the deeper parts of the 100-year flood plain an extremely high risk area for public health, Blackburn said.

“We have to consider in the future that the sea level is going to be higher and that storms are going to be getting bigger,” he said. “The oceans are getting hotter—the Gulf is getting hotter—and that is just a fact. Call it weird weather or climate change, but it is happening.”

After Hurricane Harvey, 39,000 people were evacuated from their homes and more than 200,000 homes were damaged.

“Residential instability has a big effect on the outlook and well-being of the family, and this can manifest for children in the form of PTSD, anxiety, depression, loss of a sense of control,” Miranda said. “The exposures children and the elderly are most at risk for are asthma, wheezing and getting colds more often.”

April 22 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Miranda hopes that Houston city officials will push for infrastructural change and that residents will make small adjustments that could have a big effect on their own health and the health of the planet.

“We, as individuals, can think about how often we are getting in the car, how often we are turning off the lights, running water, using our own shopping bags, using our own coffee mug,” she said. “In huge quantities of people, [these actions] can be very significant for our communities and for our planet.”

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