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Looking for Answers, Times Reporters Tested the Water in Houston

 

I won’t tell you how much it cost, in case our executive editor is reading this. Celia Dugger, The Times’s health and science editor, gave us a sizable budget. She was concerned that nobody yet knew what was in the water, and residents were already returning home in some neighborhoods to start cleaning up.

On Monday, Sept. 4, I flew to Houston, where I met my colleague Jack Healy, The Times’s Rocky Mountain correspondent, who had been covering the hurricane virtually since it started.

Tuesday morning, we picked up the sterile containers from the lab and put on our waders, goggles, masks and gloves. Jack and his team headed east to the Channelview neighborhood, along the San Jacinto River. We wanted to test there because it was downstream from several Superfund sites, and residents had reported some leaks.

I went west, to the Clayton Homes public housing complex, in downtown Houston, and then to a suburban area around the Houston Energy Corridor. Ms. Montemayor kindly lent us a boat, and the researchers sailed down along Briarhills Parkway.

What we didn’t know then, because it wasn’t announced by the Fire Department until Saturday, was that a few wastewater treatment plants had been flooded and had released raw sewage that was carried down the Buffalo Bayou. Our tests also showed that, along the way, the sewage picked up lead, arsenic, chromium and other stuff you don’t want your kids to play in.

Outside a house at the Clayton Homes complex, there were piles of debris — mattresses, rugs, stuffed animals, algebra books and family photos — atop an upside-down refrigerator.

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Inside, there was an unbelievable stench. I took one step and turned around. (Even with a mask, breathing made my throat burn.) But the researchers were stoic and spent an hour taking samples, providing us with the first measure of toxicity inside a flooded house.

The results were terrible: The level of E. coli (an indication of fecal contamination from the sewage) was 135 times what is generally considered safe, and there were raised levels of lead and other hazardous metals. Meanwhile, Jack and his team found a truly dangerous threat: liquid mercury beads, spread out over the sand.

The next day, we went out with a team from Texas A M, which sampled around Superfund sites, but we are still waiting for those results. Stay tuned for another article when we receive them.

We relied on one crucial person to double-check the data: Charlotte Smith, a microbiologist and water specialist at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health. Ms. Smith generously spent much of her weekend reading hundreds of pages of test data, from our quality control documents to the test results.

We would like readers to know how grateful we are to Ms. Smith, and to other scientists who help make our work possible.


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