Mitigating the impacts of excessive industrial pollutants following natural disasters

Research team that includes Garett Sansom receives EPA grant to study impacts and improve resiliency of communities that are affected
December 1, 2020

When a natural disaster such as a hurricane or flood occurs, the changing environmental conditions that result can have a significant impact on pollutants released from chemical facilities. Typically the pollutants released increases, and with many of the affected facilities located in vulnerable communities, the impacts on public health further intensifies.

A group of researchers that includes Garett Sansom, DrPH, research assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, has been awarded a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study such impacts and to improve the resilience of such communities.

The main objective of the project is to empower the Galena Park community to increase its resilience to pollutant releases after natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes through infrastructure.

For its study, the research team will focus on the community of Galena Park, Texas, a city in Harris County situated north of the Houston Ship Channel. Galena Park is an underserved community and suffers from frequent flooding and environmental justice issues.

Additionally, Galena Park is surrounded by heavy industry, which is defined as industry in which large machines are used to produce raw materials or to make large objects—and is the location of one of the largest reported chemical spills that occurred after Hurricane Harvey.

The group has set out with a long-term goal to improve the resilience of the Galena Park community to hurricane/flood-induced releases of metals and volatile organic compounds (VOC).

To accomplish this the researchers have outlined three objectives:

  • Comprehensively characterize the potential for hurricanes/floods to cause releases of metals and VOCs from use, production and storage facilities located in Galena Park, thereby resulting in exposure to young children and the elderly.
  • Identify/characterize important non-chemical stressors in this neighborhood, including social vulnerability and baseline health, and their potential to exacerbate health impacts from metal and VOC exposure.
  • Identify and reduce risk from metals and VOCs release by industrial facilities.

“This is a unique project as it combines public health measures with green infrastructure solutions poised to improve local resilience,” said Samson, who serves as a co-principal investigator on the project.

The researchers will use a combination of tools to accomplish their objectives. Among them will be collecting data from community members through a survey to identify non-chemical stressors; providing baseline mental and physical health assessments of community members; developing, modeling and evaluating the performance of structural and non-structural infrastructure solutions to mitigate impacts of hurricanes/floods on pollutant release and exposure; and the use of information from multiple public databases on industrial facilities.

Through their research, the group expects to detail which facilities are the most vulnerable, which VOCs that are potentially released have the biggest impact on public health, which non-chemical stressors are most impactful, and what the most promising infrastructure solutions are available to lessen hurricane- and flood-related releases and exposures.

“These approaches are something our community partners have been requesting for some time now,” Sansom said. “I am very grateful to work with such a great team to address these ongoing issues.”

Additional members of the research team include: Weihsueh A. Chiu, PhD (College of Veterinarian Medicine & Biomedical Sciences); Galen D. Newman, PhD (College of Architecture); and James Kaihatu, PhD (Zachry Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering).

— Tim Schnettler

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