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Page last reviewed: September 23, 2022

Fifth Ward/Kashmere Gardens Union Pacific Railroad Site Contamination And Area Cancer Cluster

Historical operations at the Union Pacific Railroad site at 4910 Liberty Road resulted in soil and groundwater contamination. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reviews, approves, and conducts oversight of investigations and cleanup at the site.

In April 2019, the community group, IMPACT, expressed concerns about the health impact of living in proximity to the contamination.

In November 2019, the Houston Health Department learned that an analysis conducted by the Texas Department of Health and Human Services found elevated counts of cancers known to be associated with the kinds of chemicals of concern found at the UPRR site.

Although the site is the jurisdiction of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and not the Houston Health Department, the health department is taking steps to fill in gaps to address community concerns.

Timeline of Houston Health Department and supporting city department's actions since April 2019.

  • September 23, 2022: The Houston Health Department publicly releases findings from environmental surface soil sampling conducted on July 11, 2022, in various properties located in the Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens neighborhoods near the Union Pacific Railroad site. Dioxins were found in all of the soil samples taken around the community as part of this sampling event. Dioxin is a highly toxic compound and is associated with liver cancer among other severe health risks. The Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS) has previously reported that several census tracts in the area surrounding the UPRR site had rates of liver cancer that were significantly higher than expected. The Houston Health Department has conveyed the results of the environmental surface soil sampling to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), TDSHS, and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for action. 
    (Soil sample report)

  • September 23, 2022: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed safety guidance for community residents to help protect their health and wellbeing. 
    (EPA Dioxin safety guidelines with results map)

  • September 23, 2022: Map of environmental surface soil sampling locations and associated dioxin levels from the July 11, 2022 sampling event.
    (Soil sample map)

  • July 13, 2022: The City of Houston publicly releases finding of dioxins from a single surface soil sample taken by the Houston Health Department on June 15, 2022 in the Kashmere Gardens community, near the intersection of Liberty Rd. and Lavender St. just north of the UPRR site. Dioxin is a highly toxic compound and is associated with liver cancer among other severe health risks. The Houston Health Department is committed to further testing and working with the EPA and TCEQ to find solutions for historically underserved communities like Kashmere Gardens.

  • July 11, 2022: Soil sampling for dioxin in the community surrounding the site. 
    (July 2022 Soil Sample Locations)
  • Jan. 26, 2022: In the Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens area, EPA announced completion of a review of a proposed Union Pacific Railroad permit renewal and corrective actions that govern cleanup of contamination at the Houston Wood Preserving Works site. EPA intends to submit comments to TCEQ laying out concerns and recommendations to ensure that permit terms and corrective action goals address the concerns of community members, who are disproportionately impacted by pollution. EPA is also monitoring TCEQ’s installation and operation of additional air monitors. These air monitors will supplement the existing monitoring network and capture the pollution that residents in these communities face. In addition, on January 20, 2022, Administrator Regan spoke with Mayor Sylvester Turner to discuss the continued commitment between EPA and the City of Houston to work together to ensure the community’s concerns are addressed and the health and safety of residents is protected.
  • Oct. 21, 2021: Response to letter sent to Union Pacific on September 9, 2021 responding to questions from Mayor Tuner about the site.
    (Union Pacific Response to EPA Letter)
  • Sept. 9, 2021: A letter was sent to Union Pacific Railroad from EPA’s Acting Assistant Administrator in the Office of Land and Emergency Management, Barry Breen, regarding contamination and cleanup at the Houston Wood Preserving Works site. This letter follows up on Mayor Turner’s phone call  with EPA and letter regarding his serious concerns about the health and well-being of residents who live in proximity to the site and a list of information sought by the city of Houston.
    (Letter from EPA on Union Pacific Railroad Houston Site)
  • April 26-28, 2021: In response to requests from the community, the Houston Health Department collected ambient air data north of the UPRR site at Lavender Street. Houston Health Department chemists monitored for air pollutants. The results indicate no pollutant concentrations at levels of concern.
    (Mobile Ambient Air Monitoring Laboratory (MAAML) After Action Report. April 2021)
  • April 1, 2021: The DSHS issued a letter to TCEQ indicating that in their opinion there is not enough environmental data to eliminate the vapor intrusion pathway in the residential area north of the UPRR site and recommends additional sampling.
  • Jan. 4, 2021: The DSHS issued to the Houston Health Department the report “Supplemental Assessment of the Occurrence of Cancer, Houston, Texas 2000-2016” detailing analysis of occurrence of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia and adult kidney and renal pelvis cancers in census tract around the UPRR site. This report was finalized by DSHS on January 4, 2021.
    (Cancer cluster map)
  • Dec. 5, 2020: The results of the analysis of  40 passive soil vapor gas samples conducted by a consultant for the Houston Health Department at locations over the groundwater plume associated with the Union Pacific Railroad site were received. Very few contaminants were detected and those that were detected were very low levels, close to the reporting limit. These data do not indicate inhalation risk from soil vapor contamination.  
    (Beacon Environmental map report. January 2021)
  • Oct. 27, 2020: At the request of the community, the Houston Health Department initiated Soil Vapor Gas Sampling over the groundwater plume associated with the Union Pacific Railroad site. Forty sampler locations were identified with the help of the community group, IMPACT, and Lone Star Legal Aid. The samplers were installed October 27, will be retrieved by the week of November 16, 2020 and will be analyzed by the week of November 30, 2020. The analysis includes 18 target compounds, including benzene.
  • Sept. 20, 2020: The DSHS published an addendum to their assessment of the feasibility of an epidemiological study to assess the occurrence of cancer presenting a response to items suggested for consideration by participants on the subject-matter experts conference call on August 17, 2020.
    (Addendum: Assessment of the Feasibility of an Epidemiological Study to Assess the Occurrence of Cancer)
  • Aug. 17, 2020: The DSHS held a meeting of subject matter experts to determine whether an epidemiologic study of associations between specific elevated cancers and environmental contaminants in the area investigated is feasible. The group determined, based on the information discussed during the meeting, an epidemiologic study of associations between specific cancers and environmental contaminants in the area investigated in not feasible at this time.
    (Meeting Summary: Subject Matter Experts Conference Call — Assessment of the Occurrence of Cancer, Houston, Texas)
  • May 18, 2020: The Houston Health Department created a map plotting the geographical locations of the data from the DSHS March 20, 2020 cancer cluster analysis. The figure emphasizes the census tracts that were analyzed for specific types of cancer and the map details which cancers were assessed in the notes section. A list of census tracts that were observed to have no statistically significant occurrence of cancer is also detailed in the notes section.  
    (Cancer cluster map)
  • May 15, 2020: The DSHS issued to the Houston Health Department the updated report “Assessment of the Occurrence of Cancer Houston, Texas 2000-2016” detailing the prevalence of cancer in each census tract studied. This report was finalized by DSHS on March 20,2020 and differs from the cancer cluster analysis received on January 17, 2020 in that it studies a larger geographical region encompassing more census tracks.
    (Assessment of the Occurrence of Cancer, Houston, Texas - 2000 - 2016)
  • March 10-12, 2020:  The Houston Health Department went to homes of residents who completed and submitted a health survey and responded “yes” to the occurrence of cancer in their household. This information will be analyzed, with the previously collected information from the January 4, 2020 survey, to develop a detailed account of the health needs of the area.
  • March 10-12, 2020:  The Houston Health Department went to homes of residents who completed and submitted a health survey and responded “yes” to the occurrence of cancer in their household. This information will be analyzed, with the previously collected information from the January 4, 2020 survey, to develop a detailed account of the health needs of the area.
  • March 3, 2020: Texas Department of State Health Services investigation of the occurrence of birth defects in Houston.
    (Assessment of the Occurrence of Birth Defects: Ten Census Tracts of Interest Combined Compared to Harris County 2000-2016)
    (Houston Birth Defects Assessment 2000-2016: Summary)
  • Feb. 29, 2020: The Houston Health Department hosted a community health and wellness fair at the Fifth Ward Multi-Service Center. Residents were provided health services, guided to resources, and offered the opportunity to complete the health survey.
  • Feb. 18, 2020: The Houston Health Department and community members placed door hangers and bags of information, including the health survey, at properties located within a 1/3-mile radius of the UPRR site. The properties were also visually assessed for possible action by the health department’s lead-based paint programs. The survey was scheduled to be completed by the end of March, but the completion has been postponed due to Covid-19.
  • Feb. 14, 2020: The Houston Health Department created a map of the cancer cluster’s geographical location. The figure emphasizes the census tracts that were analyzed for specific types of cancer and the map details which cancers were assessed in the notes section. A list of census tracts that were observed to have no statistically significant occurrence of cancer is also detailed in the notes section.
    (Map of the cancer cluster's geographical location)
  • Feb. 13, 2020: The Houston Health Department Chief Environmental Science Officer, Dr. Loren Hopkins, requested DSHS perform additional cancer cluster analysis of additional census tracts to the north and west of the previous tracts to determine if there is a physical boundary of the elevated cancer cases. A response from DSHS is pending.
  • Jan. 17, 2020: DSHS completed the health department’s request for additional cancer cluster analysis. The report “Assessment of the Occurrence of Cancer Houston, Texas 2000-2016” provides cancer occurrence information based on each census tract that was studied.
    (DSHS assessment of the occurrence of cancer Houston report)
  • Jan. 4, 2020: The Houston Health Department and IMPACT conducted a community survey of the 110 properties located over the contamination. The data assisted the health department to better understand the health needs in the area.
    (Impact: Greater Fifth Ward)
  • Nov. 20, 2019: The Houston Health Department Chief Environmental Science Officer, Dr. Loren Hopkins, met with IMPACT, Texas Housers, and Lone Star Legal Aid to discuss the health department’s knowledge of the cancer cluster. The health department also informed attendees of the health department’s request to DSHS for an additional cluster analysis for each individual census tract. The health department also committed to working with IMPACT on a door-to-door health survey.
  • Nov. 20, 2019: The Houston Health Department Chief Environmental Science Officer, Dr. Loren Hopkins, met with IMPACT, Texas Housers, and Lone Star Legal Aid to discuss the health department’s knowledge of the cancer cluster. The health department also informed attendees of the health department’s request to DSHS for an additional cluster analysis for each individual census tract. The health department also committed to working with IMPACT on a door-to-door health survey.
  • Nov. 14 - 15, 2019: The Houston Health Department reached out to DSHS to request a cancer cluster analysis. DSHS informed the health department that an analysis was completed on August 13, 2019 at the request of TCEQ.
    (Assessment of the occurrence of cancer Houston 2000-2016 report)
  • Nov. 8, 2019: The Houston Health Department tested surface water at two locations to determine if any contamination from the COCs were present at levels that would adversely affect the community. No chemicals were detected in the surface water.
    (Surface water sample analysis and location)
  • Nov. 5, 2019: The Houston Health Department requested and received a list of chemicals of concern (COCs) found at the UPRR site from TCEQ. The health department compiled a list of health effects associated with the COCs based on EPA sources.
    (Creosote and chemicals of concern information page)
    (UPPR Houston wood briefing chemicals of concern list)
  • Oct. 3, 2019: A city of Houston contractor tested underground storm sewer locations near the UPRR site. Results found volatile and semi-volatile organics in the storm sewer, in addition to indications of dense non-aqueous phase liquids.
    (Storm sewer sample analysis and location)
  • July 29, 2019: The City of Houston tested drinking water at three locations near the UPRR site. Results showed the water is safe and unaffected by the contamination.
    (Drinking water sample analysis and location)
  • April 24, 2019: Representatives from the Houston Health Department, Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR), and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) participated in a panel discussion at a community meeting where residents voiced environmental health concerns related to creosote at the UPRR wood treatment facility. Residents asked TCEQ to request a cancer cluster analysis from the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS).