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Silver Lining in Tragic Data

The San Jacinto River Waste Pits, an EPA Superfund site that is contaminated with dioxins, is located on Interstate 10 east of Houston.  Photo by Michael Stravato

Friday, June 19, 2015 Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) released the cancer database investigation report that the San Jacinto River Coalition has patiently waited for. Along with the data was an unprecedented announcement for TX DSHS. In over 400 similar database investigations, this is the first time that the State of Texas is actually going to conduct further investigation into the health of specific communities. This is not only a victory for the Coalition and residents of East Harris County, but a major victory for public health.

In 2011, around the same time I began volunteering for the San Jacinto River Coalition, my mother and I were begging DSHS to study the health of our community. We weren’t sure what was making so many of our neighbors sick in Highlands, but we weren’t convinced that it was a coincidence or that a high rate of genetically dysfunctional people moved to East Harris County. Not long after we publicly screamed and begged for the Environmental Protection Agency and Texas DSHS to study our health, residents of Channelview and Lynchburg joined our fight. My mother and I would go door to door and rarely did a day of being in Highlands pass that we didn’t hear a tragic health story.

When I graduated college in 2013 I began working full time leading the San Jacinto River Coalition and it was a top priority to keep the pressure on DSHS to study our health. We continued educating local residents about environmental risks, talking with them about their health and collecting data, and engaging them in the Superfund process for the San Jacinto River Waste Pits. In 2014 DSHS announced that in response to community concerns, they were going to do a cancer database investigation. I began assisting DSHS as a community representative, relaying crucial local information that shaped the parameters of their investigation.

Here’s what they did:

DSHS investigated cancer database information from 1995 to 2012 for populations along the San Jacinto River, in the inundation zones of the River. This area encompassed 38 census tracts. They looked at the data for the area as a whole and they looked at each census track individually. DSHS investigated database information for 17 types of childhood and adult cancers. Most of which are the most common cancers I have come across so keep in mind, there may be abnormal rates of other types of cancers that haven’t been investigated


Here’s a summary of what they found:

Of the 17 types of cancers investigated, 14 types came back at a statistically significantly high rate in at least one census tract within the study area.


·         The number of childhood brain cancer, leukemia, melanoma, and glioma cases were statistically significantly higher than expected in census tracts 2519, 2323, 2330, and 2520, respectively.

·         The number of childhood retinoblastoma cases was statistically significantly higher than expected in census tracts 2328 and 2529.

·         The number of male breast cancer, kidney cancer, and leukemia cases among all ages were each statistically significantly higher in 1 of the 38 census tracts.

·         The number of liver, brain, and cervical cancer cases among all ages was statistically significantly higher than expected in two, three, and five census tracts, respectively.

·         The number of both lymphoma and myeloma cases were statistically significantly higher in one, and statistically significantly lower in another, of the census tracts.

·         The number of female breast cancer cases was statistically significantly higher in three, and statistically significantly lower in eight of the census tracts.”


Above findings sourced from Texas Department of State Health Services Assessment of the Occurrence of Cancer East Harris County, Texas. The full report can be found at www.dshs.state.tx.us/epitox/CancerClusters/East-Harris-County-2015.pdf


With DSHS taking the next step and setting up a panel of experts to conduct a feasibility study for an epidemiological study, I want to see a source determined so that it can be eliminated and future generations will not face the same risks we all have. As for the ongoing Superfund process for the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, a known source of decades of contamination in this area, I think it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Every ounce of health concerns that our Coalition and residents have expressed, were confirmed with the recently released data. That doesn’t stop me from feeling overwhelmed or surprised by the substantial amount of cancer found. As someone on the ground working with these residents, I knew it was bad… in fact, my family has been impacted by two types of cancers listed above… but I didn’t think it was this bad. I hope that these families devastated by cancer see justice, however they believe justice looks for their family. As for the Coalition, we will continue educating and engaging local residents, we will continue working with stakeholders in the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund process, and we will continue working towards full remediation of the Waste Pits.

The San Jacinto River Coalition will meet Tuesday June 23, 2015 at 6:30 PM at the J.D. Walker Community Center (7613 Wade Rd, Baytown, TX). 


Recent Media Coverage:






In order to get a better understanding of the distribution of DSHS findings, I created a dinosaur style overlay on a figure provided in the full report shown above. 


Related Information:

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Texans Together Education Fund

P.O. Box 1296
Houston, Texas 77251-1296



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