HOUSTON - Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is pushing for Union Pacific railroad to help families who want to move out of the city’s Fifth Ward after a childhood cancer cluster was identified in a new state investigation.
Some researchers believe the higher rates of cancer may be tied to contamination from creosote that saturated the ground on the Union Pacific property.
"Families that are in that immediate area of this cancer cluster—they need to be relocated at the cost of Union Pacific or the stakeholders," said Turner.
The Texas Department of State Health Services identified a nearly five-times greater number of leukemia cases amongst children in the neighborhood near the railroad property than was expected based on census data, according to the assessment of cancer occurrences released this week.
"It looks like something came through here like a ghost town—like something really wiped out this area, and it used to be full of life," said Kathy Blueford-Daniels, Houston ISD Trustee for the area of Houston covering the contaminated area.
Blueford-Daniels appointed out the abandoned homes lining Liberty Road where the Union Pacific property is located and where—for years—creosote was poured to preserve railroad ties.
"That’s where U.P. acknowledged that they had water contamination," said Blueford-Daniels, pointing to the property across Liberty Road from a strip of abandoned homes.
Many people have moved away from the immediate area of the railroad property over the years, but families and schools are still located close by.
That same creosote is now the focus, as researchers try to narrow down why so many people living and working near the railroad property have developed cancer.
"It’d be smelling like something is burning," said Terri Sims, describing the smell in the air at Wheatley High School where she worked for years near the railroad property. "A lot of my people that worked under me—they would get sick and have it go home."
Sims lost her breasts to cancer while living and working near the creosote saturated ground off of Liberty Road. She moved out of the area after realizing her illness could have been caused by contamination from the railroad property.
"I used to have a bad headache, but where I’m at now, I don’t have the headaches," said Sims.
Barbara Beal is another Fifth Ward resident who spent decades living in the neighborhood near the railroad property. She is in remission from lung cancer and says many of her neighbors and friends have developed cancer too.
"We used to see the men working in the creosote, making the creosote," said Beal. "Every man on that street died from lung cancer, except for one man."
A new state investigation looked at what kinds of cancers can develop from the ingredients in creosote, then analyzed those cancer rates in children between 2000 and 2016. It found that in the Fifth Ward area census data showed an expectation of 16.2 childhood leukemia cases. Instead, there were 28 cases--much higher than expected.
In one particular area near the railroad property, they expected 1.3 cases of childhood leukemia, but instead found six cases--a nearly five-times higher rate of leukemia than normal.
Union Pacific sent FOX 26 this statement Thursday: "We sympathize with families who have loved ones undergoing medical treatment. Union Pacific continues to follow the science as we evaluate the updated assessments. At this point, decades of testing show no exposure pathway from Union Pacific’s site to any resident. We’ve consistently met with many stakeholders and are planning meetings with more in the future."