Health Issues After a Flood

by Nancy

The devastating impact of a flood extends beyond just the damage floodwaters do to homes, property and the land itself. As the floodwaters recede, the risk for health issues increases. Here is a quick overview of potential problems that can occur.

Gastrointestinal Problems—According to the CDC, eating or drinking anything contaminated by flood water can cause diarrheal disease. Using dishes, cups and utensils that have not been thoroughly cleaned, using contaminated water to prepare food, or even handling foods and beverages with contaminated hands can also result in illness. Even private drinking water wells and municipal water systems that use groundwater can be contaminated, so wait for the all-clear or have your water tested before using the water from your tap. In the meantime, use bottled, boiled, or treated water.

Step one is to wash your hands frequently, particularly after contact with floodwaters and especially before eating. Then ensure that everything you (or your children) touch—kitchenware and toys, for example) has been properly cleaned. (Read our 3 Safety Tips to Follow After a Flood and 8 Food Safety and Cleaning Guidelines for more advice.) Finally, keep children out of floodwaters, not only because of potential for GI issues or infection but also because those floodwaters can hold hidden dangers, from vermin to chemical hazards.             

Skin Infections—Floodwaters can hide glass or metal fragments, fecal material from overflowing sewage systems, agricultural and industrial waste and disease sources such as the Cryptosporidium and Giardia parasites and the Escherichia coli (E. coli), salmonella and Leptospirosis bacteria

Prevent infection by avoiding exposure to flood waters if you have an open wound, and cover the wound with waterproof bandages, changing as needed. If a wound develops redness, swelling, or drainage, seek immediate medical attention. Avoid trench foot (also called immersion foot) by keeping your feet dry, and avoid splashing flood water into your eyes.

WHN Expert Tip – Need the Shot? OSHA recommends that, before working in flooded areas, be sure your tetanus shot is current (given within the last 10 years). Wounds that are associated with a flood should be evaluated for risk; a physician may recommend a tetanus immunization.

Chemical hazards—The risk of potential chemical hazards increases since floodwaters may have moved hazardous chemical containers of solvents or other industrial chemicals from their normal storage places. If you have come into contact with chemicals or floodwater, as soon as possible remove your clothing and wash your skin with soap and clean water.

Here’s how to decontaminate yourself from the CDC: Quickly remove contaminated clothing, cutting off items instead of pulling them over your head, which can spread the contamination. Helping someone else? Wear rubber gloves and avoid touching any contaminated areas of clothing.

Use soap and water to wash your skin, and use plain water to rinse your eyes for at least 10 to 15 minutes. Wearing contacts? Remove them and put with contaminated clothing. Do NOT replace them in your eye. Wash your glasses with soap and water, then resume wearing them.

Finally, use rubber gloves or use tongs or other similar objects to put all contaminated clothing into a plastic bag, seal it, and put that bag in a second bag and seal it, too. Mark the outside of the bag with the word “Contaminated” and show it to the local or state health department or emergency personnel who will arrange for proper disposal. (More advice is in our post, Cleaning Your Possessions and Home After a Disaster.)

Animal and Insect Bites—Flood waters can displace animals, insects, and reptiles, notes the CDC. To protect yourself and your family, be alert and avoid contact. West Nile Virus (WNV), the leading cause of mosquito-borne disease in the continental United States, is most commonly spread by the bite of an infected mosquito.

While only about one out of 150 infected people develop a serious, sometimes fatal, illness, one in five people who are infected develop a fever and other symptoms. Reduce the risk of WNV by using insect repellent and wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants to prevent mosquito bites.

WHN Expert TIP – Prevent Mosquito Breeding: Ryan Larsen, civil engineer at NDS, Inc. who’s also known as the “Dr. Drainage” on NDS’s YouTube video series, recommends eliminating standing water wherever it occurs since it’s a breeding ground for mosquitoes. You may also need to use an organic-based insect-controlling yard spray to kill off fleas, ticks and other insects.

Mold—Flood and stormwater can lead to mold issues. Dry out your home and possessions as soon as possible. Have your home heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system checked and cleaned by a maintenance or service professional experienced in mold cleanup to avoid spreading mold throughout the house.

Lung issues—Damp buildings and furnishings promote the growth of bacteria, dust mites, cockroaches and mold, according to the American Lung Association. This can aggravate asthma and allergies and may cause the development of asthma, wheeze, cough and other allergic diseases. During clean-up, wear a NIOSH-certified N95 mask to avoid inhaling dust, building materials, contaminants and microorganisms that can add to lung disease complications. (Note: N95 masks do not protect against gases, and do not protect children or adults with facial hair.)

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning—If your utility service has been disrupted, you may be tempted to use a generator for power, a pressure washer for cleaning, or a grill, camp stove, or other gasoline, propane, natural gas, or charcoal-burning device for cooking. But using them inside your home, basement, garage, or camper, or even outside near an open window, door, or vent, can send carbon monoxide (CO) gas into your home, causing CO poisoning that can lead to sudden illness and death.

If your CO detector sounds, leave your home immediately and call 911. Also, seek prompt medical attention if you suspect CO poisoning and/or are feeling dizzy, light-headed, or nauseated.


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