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Sediment Testing in the Aftermath of Hurricane Ike
Responding to community concerns on environmental health

In January of 2009, St. Vincent’s House, the NIEHS COEC and the CEHD shared concerns about the safety of the sediment that washed through homes, businesses, and streets in Galveston due to Hurricane Ike. The sediment remained distinctly visible on both public and private property several months after the hurricane. In response, the team worked with local donors and the city government to quickly test the sediment for toxins, including lead, arsenic, chromium, cadmium, PCB’s, dioxins, asbestos, sulfur compounds, diesel range organics, and semi -volatile organics.

Nine samples were collected from various sites from the east end of Galveston Island to around 81st Street. Locations were chosen on the basis of geographic diversity, proximity to industrial sites, socioeconomically diverse residential areas, and areas vulnerable to toxins washed ashore from Galveston Bay, the Galveston Channel, and the Houston Ship Channel.

Following standard protocols set by the Environmental Protection Agency for collection and preservation of samples and chain of custody, and with the permission of property owners, trained community partners assisted in the collection of sediment samples. These samples were then analyzed for content by a nationally accredited laboratory. The map below indicates sites where contaminants reached levels of concern, that is, levels at which mandatory remediation of the soil would be legally mandated.

The findings of this study were largely good news. Levels of toxins were not found in any of the samples collected from the nine sites at levels that would trigger legal action, and it appears there were no large industrial releases of toxins during the storm. However, levels of arsenic exceeded the EPA screening levels for six of the eight sites tested, and the levels of chromium and lead in several samples were of concern. Dioxin was elevated at one of the two sites tested. There were little or no detectable levels of PCBs, asbestos, sulfur compounds, diesel range organics, or semi-volatile organics.

Consistent detection of arsenic above EPA residential screening levels, as well as other metals at lower levels, raises some concerns, especially given Galveston’s pre-Ike burden of heavy metals in the soil. Additional specific concerns include likely disproportionate exposure and impact on disparity populations (especially the poor), exposure among children and other vulnerable populations, sensitive land use and activities such as playgrounds, and the impact of cumulative risk in a population already physically and psychologically taxed by living in a post-disaster community.

In order to assist in rebuilding Galveston with a strong community spirit for protecting our children and ensuring a clean environment, the CEHD developed several follow up activities to provide greater community awareness and education on environmental toxins, to support disaster planning that would reduce community exposure in future disasters, and to support rebuilding of a healthier environment in Galveston.

View the LEAST Lead Report and the Executive Summary.

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