The damage from the devastating flooding in Houston, Texas is still unfolding slowly when it comes to adverse health consequences. The rest of the country watched as more than 50 inches of water rose to trap residents in their nursing homes and submerge semi-trucks. Twenty trillion gallons of water poured into the urban areas of Houston, which were once wetlands and would have more easily absorbed the water. Developers paved over what could have saved homes and livelihoods.
As of late August, more than 13 people have lost their lives, while another 13,000 people have been rescued. However, post-storm health impact statistics are not able to be measured by mortality rates but instead are measured by the growing presence of mold.
When a city is submerged underwater, a new ecosystem of fungal growth is allowed to emerge, the effects of which are not yet entirely understood. The city’s infrastructure and geography, which has kept the water from dissipating, has created an area for fungal overgrowth to adversely affect people’s health for possibly a lifetime.
The negative health effects of mold exposure, which have been thoroughly studied and documented, are many. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that living and/or working in an area that has been exposed to mold is associated with respiratory problems, allergies, asthma, and immunological reactions. The WHO cites a wide array of “inflammatory and toxic responses after exposure to microorganisms isolated from damp buildings, including their spores, metabolites, and components,” in addition to stating that mold can increase the risk of such rare conditions as hypersensitivity pneumonitis, allergic alveolitis, and chronic sinusitis.
Twelve years ago in New Orleans, Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina similarly rendered most homes unlivable, which created a breeding ground for mosquitoes and the diseases they carry, which, in turn, caused a shortage of water and food. Unfortunately, after these issues were dealt with, the mold exposure, especially in lower income neighborhoods and households, persisted. The same story occurred in Brooklyn, New York, after the events of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In the Red Hook neighborhood of Long Island, a 2016 community study found that an increasing number of residents were still living in mold-infested apartments.
The oft-referenced “toxic mold” refers to the varieties of mold that send microtoxins into the air, which, when inhaled, can cause a person to become sick. In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 South Carolina, as the sludge, which had been present for days, finally began to subside, black mold grew in its place. In the small town of Nichols, SC, it was the mold, and not the actual flood, which is responsible for leaving the town’s 261 homes uninhabitable for months.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in the aftermath of Katrina, encouraged people to wear respirators when entering flooded buildings, particularly when cleaning and ripping out damaged drywall. It is these dangerous jobs that are typically undertaken by manual laborers.
Residents who returned to their homes following Katrina reported suffering from severe headaches and nausea. The organic compound that was found in this particular house was a particular type of mold, known as mushroom alcohol, which is more commonly known to affect fruit flies. The bizarre effects of this mold adversely affected the body’s handling and transporting of dopamine in a way that mimicked the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Molds are also known to emit chemicals, which affect the human nervous system. Twelve years later, the health impacts of long-term mold exposure are still being studied in New Orleans.
Unfortunately, under the Trump Administration, the government has slashed the funding for the research of mold’s effects. In addition, with rising sea levels, the effects of mold on the lives of humans is only expected to increase, not decrease, while rising sea levels and global warming have made flooding on the Gulf Coast more common.
Even though the EPA would usually be tasked with handling the aftermath of the flooding in Houston, the EPA is busy fighting carbon emissions, which also raise the likelihood of severe weather. Now, the EPA stands less equipped to deal with the aftermath of the flooding in Houston than dealing with the aftermath of Katrina, particularly in terms of the mold contaminants.
In Houston, the long-term health effects outweigh the seemingly more immediate concerns. When the water and the cameras are gone, as well as the Houston deemed emergency funds have expired, mold will be the dividing line between those individuals who can afford to escape the effects of the mold versus those for whom the storm does not end when the rain ceases to fall.
The damp, wet climate of Texas, when combined with excessive rain and flooding, is the perfect formula for breeding mold. Exercise caution when entering buildings affected by the hurricane and subsequent floodwaters.