The devastating effects of recent hurricanes and flooding bring to light the serious health problems that can arise from exposure to floodwaters. From the immediate aftermath through the clean-up process, there are potential health dangers that residents, rescue workers and clean-up crews need to worry about.
In the Aftermath: Sewage and Chemical Contamination
When flooding is caused by a sewer main break or hurricane, the water can contain sewage and other harmful chemicals. The dangers of flooding from sewer main breaks is such a concern that many cities are using trenchless pipe repair to reduce the risk of raw sewage flooding the streets.
Sewage-contaminated water can also cause rashes or boils on the skin if the body part is submerged for extended periods of time. Chemical exposure can also cause rashes and burns on the skin and eyes.
Along with exposure to sewage and chemicals, floodwater may also hide sharp objects, like glass and metal. Rescue workers and residents can easily become injured when coming in contact with these objects, especially if the water is moving quickly. Infection and other health complications become a serious concern when these open wounds come in contact with contaminated flood water.
Floodwater may also carry disease, although this is more common in developing countries where yellow fever, cholera and typhoid are present. Gastrointestinal issues, like vomiting and diarrhea, is more common than disease outbreaks.
These issues can occur when coming in contact with contaminated water, or consuming food or drink that has made contact with floodwater. Using items that have been submerged in floodwater will increase the risk of stomach issues.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends not allowing children to play with toys that have been submerged in floodwater unless they have been thoroughly washed and decontaminated.
Residents who stay in shelters may also develop respiratory infections or contract stomach bugs. These issues develop when people have to stay in close quarters and it becomes more difficult to maintain healthy hygiene standards. Germs are easily spread when people are forced to stay in large groups.
Experts recommend that families in shelters take precautions to help prevent the spread of germs. Washing hands thoroughly and using hand sanitizer may stop the spread of disease. Keeping distance from others in the shelter can also help prevent illness. Open wounds should be covered at all times, as contact with floodwater can greatly increase the risk of infection.
Increased Risk of Mosquito-Borne Illnesses and Electrocution
Initially, floods flush out mosquitoes and disrupt their breeding cycle in the process. Once the flooding stops, the standing water becomes the ultimate breeding ground for these disease-carrying pests.
Standing floodwater greatly increases the risk of mosquito-borne illness, like West Nile or Zika. Studies showed that areas impacted by Hurricane Katrina had an increase in cases of West Nile. The CDC recommends that people use bug spray with DEET if they plan to spend time near standing water.
While mosquito-borne illnesses are the primary concern, people should also be cautious of other creatures that may be lurking in floodwater. Ants, reptiles, rodents and even house pets may be displaced in floods. Keep your distance from any animals that may have been displaced to avoid being bitten.
Electrocution is another serious concern with standing floodwater, and it’s one that many people don’t think about. Standing water may be electrically charged. Fallen power lines may be submerged in water and hidden from sight, or they may be underground but still live.
During Clean-Up: Restoring Sanitary Conditions
Health concerns still linger after the floodwaters have receded. Doctors say respiratory infections are more common after floods, especially when people are allowed to return to their homes.
Contamination and mold growth are the two primary concerns. Mold can grow quickly in warm environments, which can make allergies and asthma symptoms even worse. Clean-up crews and residents should take steps to thoroughly decontaminate homes and structures.
- Hard surfaces that have come in contact with floodwater – including appliances, countertops and children’s toys – should be cleaned with soap and water. They should also be disinfected with a diluted bleach solution.
- Fabrics should either be dry-cleaned or washed in hot water.
- Upholstered furniture, beds and chairs should be left in the sun to dry, and then sprayed with a disinfectant.
- All carpeting in the home should be steam-cleaned or replaced.
Food or drinks that have come in contact with floodwater, including those in the refrigerator and cabinets, should be thrown out. The FDA also suggests that people should throw away prescription drugs, even if they are in their original containers. It’s possible that they may have come in contact with contaminated floodwater.
The Mental Health Challenges Flood Victims Face
Physical health concerns are typically the main focus when flooding occurs, but these events can also cause mental health issues. For flood victims already suffering from depression, stress, PTSD and anxiety, symptoms may worsen after the incident. After a flood, people may experience:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Emotional breakdowns
- Unclear thinking
- Difficulty listening to others
- Difficulty remembering things
Some people may also have a hard time accepting the situation. Mental health challenges are common in disastrous floods, but most people will recover in time. Having a strong support network may help reduce the recovery time and make it easier to move on.
Others may have a difficult time accepting the situation and moving forward. Counseling is available for those with lingering mental challenges.
Staying Safe after Flooding
Avoid walking or traveling through floodwater unless absolutely necessary. Experts also recommend avoiding walking on river banks or sea defenses, as they may become unstable.
Drowning is a serious concern in floodwater, especially with children. It can be difficult or impossible to determine how deep the water is. In the midst of a flood, people can be swept away and injured or killed in the process.
It’s important to wash your hands thoroughly after coming in contact with floodwater. Any items that have come in contact with potentially contaminated water should be cleaned thoroughly or thrown out.