Website helps communities determine Hurricane Harvey’s toxic impact

Graduate student creates interactive website for most vulnerable communities in Houston
May 9, 2018

When Hurricane Harvey made landfall in 2017, homes were obliterated and floodwaters were left everywhere near its impact, with water redistributing dangerous chemicals and toxic waste endangering the health of Houston residents. Pablo Alvarez, a graduate student at the Texas A&M School of Public Health worked with Jennifer Horney, PhD, department head at the School of Public Health and lead of the Community Engagement Core of the Texas A&M Superfund Research Center, in collecting samples for analysis. His fluency in English and Spanish helped in communicating with different communities within Houston.

“There have been many studies and samples collected from Houston for research purposes, but most residents of the communities studied in the papers, and who the research was often aimed towards helping, have never had access to the results after the data has been analyzed and published in peer-reviewed literature,” Horney said.

That is why Alvarez suggested he develop a website where community stakeholders in the most vulnerable communities of Houston would be able to more easily access environmental data that was collected in their neighborhoods.

Alvarez began creating an interactive website that allows residents to find research data relating to environmental health and justice concerns by searching by their ZIP code or other fields. After he realized the massive amount of data was too much for him to fill in by himself, he organized a “hack-athon,” where he and 25 other students uploaded studies and data to the website, and expanded the website’s pool of information greatly. Even after the hack-athon was completed, Alvarez saw greater opportunity for the website if he could take a Geographic Information Systems class, and did so in order to add the locations of documented exposures like radioactive waste sites and toxic waste sites, making available even more of the information that would have remained known only to scholars and health experts.

He has continued to spend most weekends this spring interviewing residents of Houston to better understand their perceptions of the contamination in parks that resulted from Hurricane Harvey flooding. He has develop and delivered curriculum to high school students in Houston about environmental health, all the while continuing to update the website with post-Hurricane Harvey data and helping to promote the site by developing Facebook videos.

“Pablo’s work has made, and will continue to make, an incredible contribution to the environmental justice communities of Houston,” Horney said. “Although he could have been very highly paid for his expertise, he chose to give back to the School of Public Health by training fellow students in database development, coding and other skills that will build their own resumes, and to the residents of Houston not only through the website, but through training high school students, making his contribution to the next generation of environmental health scientists.”

In fact, Alvarez was recently awarded the Margaret Rudder Community Service Award, a university-wide award recognizing those who have made a significant impact through their volunteerism. Alvarez’s continued work in service to the Houston’s environmental justice communities is helping those most impacted by Hurricane Harvey.

“I am a recipient of the Bill and Melinda Gates Millennium Scholarship, and thanks to them I had access to higher education and to a community of scholars with a wide range of talents whose goals are the same as mine: to make the world a tiny bit better,” Alvarez said. “Bill Gates has been a role model for each and every single one of us. He not only gives his money to causes he cares about, he actively uses his incredible intelligence and talents to make the world better. I think deep down inside, we all want to emulate him and give back to our communities.”

SPH – Director of Communications and Alumni Affairs

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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