Ship channel

Study finds lead in drinking water in some eastern Houston homes

Older homes with lead pipes, in conjunction with the chemicals used during the water purification process, underlie problem
August 2, 2019

According to a study conducted by the World Health Organization, lead exposure over time affects multiple body systems and is extremely harmful to children. Lead exposure is the cause behind the Flint Water Crisis in Michigan, but practices that led to the water contamination in Flint are also happening in communities in Houston, Texas. While much attention is given to Flint, researchers at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, College of Architecture and College of Geosciences discovered lead contaminated water in residential areas through a pilot study along the Houston Ship Channel.

In work published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Garett Sansom, PhD,  research assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the School of Public Health, led a study in Manchester, a low-income neighborhood along the Houston Ship Channel plagued with numerous issues including flooding, air pollution and health concerns. Natural disasters, such as Hurricane Harvey, increase the risk of exposure to lead in this area. Previous research has shown low-income minority communities have an increased risk of lead exposure, but few studies have examined the environmental justice factors of these communities.

Manchester is located in eastern Houston and considered an industrial site, known for generating and storing hazardous waste and discharging large amounts of air pollution. Manchester is one of several communities along the Houston Ship Channel, with 98 percent of this population being minority. Only 6 percent of residents have obtained bachelor degrees, and the median income is one-third lower than the city of Houston overall, according to the City of Houston Planning and Development Department.

Researchers collected surveys from 13 randomly selected residents and collected tap water samples from 22 households. Researchers found that 30.8 percent of respondents indicated having concerns about their water. 75 percent of the residents who had concerns actually had lead in their water. Overall, 30 percent of the homes sampled had lead in the water, with 25 percent of these homes having children. Older homes with lead pipes, in conjunction with the chemicals used during the water purification process, are the underlying cause of lead contaminated water in Manchester.

“The water purification process in Houston uses chlorine and chloramines to purify tap water,” Sansom said. “However, these chemicals change the composition of the water, so that when it flows through old piping, it causes the pipes to leech lead into the drinking water.”

According to Sansom, replacing pipes in homes with older infrastructures is very costly for citizens and is beyond the means of most living in low-socioeconomic communities. The best long term solution is a lead abatement program, an initiative in which the state or local government will cover the cost of replacing lead pipes in older homes. Currently, the only solutions to the contaminated water in Manchester is to provide filters for people to use in their homes or change water use habits, such as letting water run freely before drinking it.

Further research is needed at a larger scale to clearly determine the long-term effects of lead-contaminated water in communities along the Houston Ship Channel. In addition to this, Sansom said more research is needed to address environmental justice inequities in additional communities across the country.

“Flint, Michigan, is not the only municipality suffering from contaminated drinking water,” Sansom said. “This study highlights that contaminated water is an issue in our backyard and should be taken just as seriously.”

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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