Houston’s Fifth Ward Residents Say Their Children Are Latest to See Effects of Creosote Contamination

Residents of Houston’s Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens say they know too many of their neighbors who have had children with birth defects.

“We all had to deal with it. I know at least every person I grew up with within this area,” resident Nakia Osbourne told KTRT-TV Channel 13 in Houston. “I’m 44 right now, almost 45. Half of them have a child that has a disability.”

Osbourne’s son, Charlie, was one of them, she said. He was born with autism and severe intellectual disabilities. He died in 2014 at the age of 13 from a burn accident, but Osbourne said his life proves what everyone already knows: creosote, once used at the nearby Union Pacific facility, has hurt the community.

“They destroyed a lot of people’s lives,” Osburne said. “Because people were dying from cancer. Mothers were dying from cancer like crazy. And now the kids. Now it’s trickling down to the kids. The great-grandkids.”

In March 2020, the Texas Department of State Health Services published a study on birth defects in children living near the rail yard. The Houston Health Department requested the evaluation in response to public concern.

Initial data showed that from 2000 to 2016, gastroschisis was twice as common in that area compared to Harris County as a whole. Gastroschisis is a problem with the belly wall that leaves the intestines exposed.

Creosote is derived from the distillation of tar from wood or coal and is used as a wood preservative. Pesticide products containing creosote as the active ingredient are used to protect wood used outdoors, such as railroad ties and utility poles, against termites, fungi, mites and other pests, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which has deemed it a probable human carcinogen. Creosote has been used as a wood preservative since the mid-1800s.

Some studies with laboratory animals suggest that creosote exposure can cause birth defects, such as cleft palate among babies born to mothers exposed to high levels of creosote during pregnancy, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. 

Long-term exposure, especially through direct contact with skin during wood treatment or manufacture of coal tar creosote-treated products, to low levels of creosote has resulted in skin cancer and cancer of the scrotum. Other health impacts of direct exposure include lung irritation; blistering, peeling, or reddening of the skin; damage to the eyes; and increased sensitivity to sunlight. According to the ATSDR, eating food or drinking water with large amounts of creosote may cause skin rash, eye burns, convulsions, kidney or liver problems and unconsciousness or death.

People may be exposed to creosote by working in a wood preserving facility or living close to a wood preserving facility if the facility discharged creosote into the air or onto the ground, the ATSDR said. Also, people can be exposed when they use wood treated with creosote to build fences, bridges, railroad tracks, or installing telephone poles, live in houses made of wood treated with creosote, drink water contaminated with creosote, or eat food, like fish and shellfish, contaminated with creosote.

“This is out here and it’s real. They’re killing us,” resident Sandra Edwards said of the nearby railroad facility. “They’re killing babies before they even get here.”

Jackie Medcalf is the Executive Director of Texas Health and Environmental Alliance, a nonprofit grassroots group helping residents. “This report showed some really alarming things for moms. For people of the community,” Medcalf said. “Our children are the most vulnerable, and now, we’re seeing in this community, have a higher rate of terrible birth defects.”

In August 2019, the Department of State Health Services released a study showing the area had higher than normal adult cancers. According to the EPA, that is mostly due to cancer-causing agents in the environment. Another DSHS study months later showed children in that area had higher than normal leukemia rates. Now, they’re talking about birth defects and complications.

Union Pacific has held several community meetings and now has signage warning residents about the soil danger on their land.

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