For months, Houston city leaders have urged homeowners to clean up their yards in an effort to eliminate potential mosquito breeding grounds and reduce the risk of diseases like West Nile and Zika virus.
But the KHOU 11 News I-Team discovered that in some areas, the city has been slow to follow its own advice.
From piles of tires left along the street in north Houston to a giant dump pile that blocked part of a street in the Acres Homes neighborhood, the I-Team had no trouble finding trash gathering standing water on city-owned land and rights-of-way.
It’s not what people living in these areas expected weeks into a citywide cleanup effort.
Tyrone George said the pile of tires the I-Team found stacked on a city sidewalk has been there for months.
“Nobody’s cleaned them up?” the I-Team asked George.
“Nah,” he said.
Those tires sit across from a city playground and an elementary school near Victoria and Oxford.
That neighborhood was the target of 21 illegal dumping complaints to the city last year.
George says mosquitos are a constant problem in the area.
“It’s like you’re going to catch something,” he said. “You’re scared to come outside.”
Concerned about the threat of the Zika virus, in February city leaders launched a push to clean up trash and eliminate standing water where mosquitos can breed.
“Let me encourage homeowners and those who are property owners, renters, to do anything you can to clean up around your home to remove any sort of containers that can been a breeding ground for mosquitos,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a news conference shortly after the city announced its plans for that comprehensive cleanup.
As part of the effort, the mayor announced crew would be working six days a week to pick up dumping.
But a month and a half into that cleanup, the I-Team found trash piles still littered neighborhoods.
Antonio Delacruz still set his daily schedule around mosquitos.
“Bad. They’re bad,” explained Delacruz as he sat in front of his home in the Fifth Ward. “Get a little sunshine, fresh air during the day because at night, you can’t sit out here.”
Delacruz blamed the pile of junk down the street.
It’s another dumping area with a history of complaints to the city.
“We try to basically keep our yard clean and everything,” Delacruz said. “But they’re not doing their part.”
But how real is the risk?
Weeks after the city pledged to clean up, the I-Team traveled to different dumping spots and collected water samples looking for mosquitos.
We took those samples to Rice University’s biology department for analysis.
“Everything I see in here that’s moving is a mosquito larva,” explained Shannon Carter, a graduate student studying Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
In all, she found mosquito larvae in 10 of the 12 water samples the I-Team collected.
“In this sample, there’s a couple thousand mosquito larvae you can see,” said Carter, pointing to one sample.
That sample came from a giant trash pile near Glenda Robertson’s home near Sealey and Marjorie streets in the Acres Homes neighborhood.
“Whoa! That could get people sick!” Robertson said when she saw the sample filled with larvae. “That looks nasty and really disgusting. It’s making me want to move.”
A few street away, a water sample taken from a trash-filled ditch on a city-owned lot also had mosquito larvae.
“We all deserve better,” said Jermichael King, who lives across the street.
He has a message for city leaders.
“If you want us to do our job, you do your job,” King said. “That’s the only way it can get better.”
Councilman Jerry Davis agrees.
He represents King’s neighborhood.
“I would say it’s a fair assessment,” King said. “You know, we can’t ask anyone to do something that we’re not doing.”
Davis admits the city needs to do better cleaning up illegal dumping and educating people about the health risks.
They’re risks that the mayor says increased after April’s flooding.
“We have to do all that we can to reduce this breeding ground,” Turner told city council last week.
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But the I-Team found that some of the same mosquito breeding grounds tested a month earlier still hadn’t been touched, 10 weeks into the citywide cleanup.
When we asked the mayor if the city was following its own advice about eliminating potential breeding grounds, he got defensive.
“Sir, reporters need to be fair,” Turner said. “Be fair. Don’t do a disservice to Houstonians. This city is 670 square miles. It’s a large city. You’re not going to cover all of the city in terms of removing every tire and trash in just a matter of a few weeks.”
The city says it’s cleaned up more than 2,600 tons of trash before the floods.
But scientists warn that each passing week can mean an entirely new batch of mosquitos can hatch and develop in neighborhoods left waiting for the city’s promised cleanup.
“If some of these were collected on city property, it's very important for the city to be setting the example,” Carter said, “and keeping the environment clean so that we can have a healthy environment and we’re eliminating the amount of mosquitos as much as possible.”
The city urges anyone who sees illegal dumping to report it by calling 311.