Health Effects of Air Pollution Nightmare for Manchester Family
by Vicki Wolf, August 2007
“My husband and I had gone camping the summer of 2003. When we came home, Valentin complained of a headache and had a huge fever blister on his lip,” Rosario Marroquin remem-bers. Other things were changing for her six year old son, and at first Marroquin didn’t make the connection. Valentin was in the gifted and talented class at school. “He had a conflict with his teacher and they wanted to put him in a different class,” Marroquin says. “I was broken hearted.” Valentin was transferred to a regular class and loved his teacher. He would get up at 6 in the morning to get ready for school. “He really liked school,” Marroquin says.
That Friday, when Marroquin picked her son up from school, he complained that his legs hurt and he said his heart hurt. When Marroquin took him to the doctor, his hemoglobin was 6.2, about half the normal level. The doctor told her that it could be anemia, that he might be mal-nourished. They would give him iron and maybe he would get better. Marroquin checked her son into Texas Children’s Hospital. Within a day, his hemoglobin had gone down to 4. The doctor said they would run HIV tests.
It was then that Marroquin realized her son’s condition could be very serious. She prayed a gen-tle prayer of surrender and now wonders if she should have screamed and prayed in a different way.
They ran more tests and gave Valentin a blood transfusion. When Marroquin came into his room, she saw that her son looked vibrant again. “His lips and cheeks were red again,” Marroquin re-calls. “He was sitting up in the bed smiling and eating pizza. It gave me hope.” Then the oncolo-gist smiled and told Marroquin that is was acute lymphocytic leukemia. “She said it as if it was the answer I was looking for,” Marroquin says. “She should have told me a different way.” That night, Valentin began intensive chemotherapy treatment.
When she was 19, Marroquin signed up for the bone marrow registry. “I was stubborn about get-ting to forms on the internet,” she recalls. She remembers choosing the environment as a topic for a class project. “I was naturally interested in it and got a good grade.” She also studied nurs-ing and was fascinated with the spinal tap procedure. “People tell me that maybe life was prepar-ing me,” Marroquin says. “I had to experience the spinal tap for the first time with my son, and I hated it,” she adds in a sad, angry tone.
Since Valentin was diagnosed with leukemia. Marroquin has gone through feelings of guilt, thinking that maybe if she hadn’t been so interested in the environment and medicine that maybe her son would not have come down with leukemia. Her mother-in- law thinks it’s something Valentin ate. His father thinks the hospital did something to him. Marroquin says before Valen-tin’s illness, “We thought life was perfect and the kids were good. We wanted more kids,” she recalls.” Guilt, blame, worry and stress now plague the family, and the Marroquin’s are getting a divorce.
When Valentin was diagnosed with leukemia, the doctor told Marroquin the illness might have been caused by antibiotics or environmental factors. The Marroquin family lives in Manchester, a southeast Houston neighborhood near the Houston Ship Channel with the largest concentration of petrochemical plants in the United States. “I decided to find out about where I live, and I learned about benzene,” Marroquin says. She looked at toxic inventory reports from 2001 to 2003. “I noticed how high levels were when he was running around, playing on the trampoline and riding his bike.”
In 2005, Mayor Bill White announced that monitoring and reducing refinery and plant emissions would be a top priority for Houston. He created staff positions, hired technical experts and added people to the legal department to take action on environmental compliance. “The biggest short-term impact is controlling emissions of toxic chemicals particularly in olefins – ethylene and 1-3 butadiene – from refineries and petrochemical plants,” White said.
A study by the Mayor’s Task Force on Health Effects of Air Pollution in 2006 looked at the pol-lutants that caused greatest health risks, which ones were most predominant and greatest expo-sure. Butadiene and benzene were at the top of the list of 12 pollutants discovered to cause great-est risk.
A more recent study, conducted by a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health examined data in the Cancer Registry and compared the addresses of people living close to butadiene and benzene sources to those living farther away. The researchers reported that children, like Valentin, living within two miles of the Ship Channel had a 56 percent greater chance of developing lymphocytic leukemia.
One of the first victories of the task force was an agreement with Texas Petrochemicals LP Company (TCP) calling for TCP to make significant reductions in its emission of 1,3 butadiene through equipment upgrades and enhancement in monitoring and repair activities. Elena Marks, director of City of Houston’s Public Health and Environmental Policy, says that monitors in nearby Milby Park, Clinton and at Cesar Chavez High School show that TPC has reduced buta-diene emissions 56 percent. The butadiene levels at all three locations were still above the ac-ceptable risk of .015 parts per billion (ppb).
“Texas Petroleum was low hanging fruit,” says Marks. The company had bad controls in place and high levels of butadiene, and they are located within the City of Houston.” Marks says the threat of a lawsuit brought TCP to the agreement.
The city is improving monitoring with the latest technology and is “enforcing existing air quality regulations by all available means,” according to Marks. “One of the really great things we have done is our two-pronged approach to toxic reduction with the Nuisance Ordinance and the Ben-zene Reduction Program,” she says. Early this year the city established the Benzene Reduction Program, which targeted the seven largest emitters of benzene and posed the greatest health risk due to volume and proximity to neighborhoods. “We worked with engineers to look at permits and make specific recommendations.” The companies protested but Marks says the message from City Hall is: “If you are contributing to these excessive levels we are going to come after you.”
The Nuisance Ordinance caused an uproar with industry as well as mayors of nearby cities. The ordinance set ambient air standards and called for industries polluting the air in Houston to de-velop publicly stated emission reduction goals, pollution controls, monitoring, and independent accountability and consequences. “We held a bunch of hearings. Industry was extremely upset, but no one from the industry would testify. This made it hard to deal with them,” Marks explains. The complaints led to a revision of the ordinance to make it tighter with more clarity on what was considered a major source and detailing specific pollutants.
State representatives and mayors of nearby cities have protested the ordinance. In the interest of expediency, Mayor White has agreed to a Greater Houston Partnership task force to consider voluntary reduction of emissions. Marks says hearings have been underway since March with lots of meetings. She says that task force will soon release their recommendations.
At the state level, none of the bills introduced in the last legislative session to monitor and reduce toxic emissions were passed. Chair of the Environmental Committee, Dennis Bonnan, intro-duced SB 12 that offers a grant program to help people replace older vehicles and leak detection equipment to encourage industry self-monitoring. Ana Hernandez represents “ground zero” the area where Loop 610 intersects 225 and both sides of the Ship Channel. She says the bill she in-troduced to inform communities with an annual report on the air pollution watch list never re-ceived a hearing and was added as an amendment to SB 12. The amendment was stripped from the bill behind closed doors in conference committee.
“It is frustrating because I can sympathize with my community having grown up in Pasadena,” Hernandez says. “The health problem is magnified because many of the families don’t have health insurance.”
Hernandez chairs the Environment Legislation Caucus, founded by State Representative Jessica Farrar. The purpose of the caucus is to inform legislators about environmental issues and what needs to be done. Hernandez hopes to keep environmental issues in front of legislators during the upcoming campaign season. “We would like to have state-wide hearings between sessions to ex-plain environmental problems and the health issues. Consider indigent care -- the cost of going to emergency room affects all of us,” she says. “People think, ‘It doesn’t affect me -- I don’t live in the area,’ but in the end it does affect all of us in one way or another.”
Farrar represents District 148, the Buffalo Bayou area upstream from the Ship Channel where a lot of industry that supports the Ship Channel is located. “We’re not at ground zero, but when it heats up, the pollution blows westward and then back eastward across Missouri City. Farrar says Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) fails to effectively enforce regulations. “They break the law and continue to break the law because all they get is a slap on the wrist,” she says.
Farrar was hopeful that things in the State Legislature would change after the 2005 Houston Chronicle series, “In Harms Way” that reported on a study the newspaper conducted that exam-ined the high levels of toxic pollution in Southeast Houston and its association with cancer, liver and kidney damage in nearby neighborhoods like Manchester. “I thought it would raise aware-ness,” she says. “But we are still not getting hearings on our bills.”
“I think big business and big industry run the show in the Legislature, Farrar says. “We are back to the system: “you pay to play” -- the bigger donors get bills passed. The chair wouldn’t even give hearings to let the public speak about it,” she continues. “You have to wonder why they would not allow the facts to come out.”
Valentin is 10 years old now and the leukemia is in remission. But the nightmare continues for the Marroquin family. They are concerned about the future health of their three daughters, Monica, 9, Miranda, 4 and Victoria, 2. “They don’t understand why they can’t go out and play on a pretty day,” Marroquin says.
Marroquin has spoken out in town hall meetings and in the news media. She says she’s not happy with the progress being made to get industry to reduce toxic emissions in her neighbor-hood. “We get so upset with refineries,” Marroquin says. “We see flares and smoke on cloudy days or at night when inspectors are not around.” She adds that since 2005, when Mayor White declared air quality and public health a priority, not enough has changed. “They’re not getting fined for emissions violations. Valero went to court and said they would put vents in peoples’ houses,” Marroquin says. “They came and changed light bulbs and patched windows for energy efficiency -- their wasting money.”
Marroquin plans to leave the Manchester neighborhood as soon as she can. “I haven’t been happy -- they flare when they want to -- I want to get out.”