With the city of Corpus Christi and surrounding areas hit hard last week with heavy rain, health officials are warning about an increased risk of illnesses and hazards that can be caused by the rising floodwaters.
Just walking through flood waters can expose you to all sorts of infection and diseases.
Floodwater is more than simple rain. It’s often contaminated with sewage and chemicals and can hide sharp objects. And it can also carry diseases.
“It’s the fact that you can be walking through actual human waste and infect some of those germs. A lot of them are E. coli, salmonella and shigella; hepatitis A virus; and all this you can get an infection from, especially if you are not careful about cleanliness, hand washing, and avoiding drinking water while you are outside in the street,” said Amistad Community Health Center Dr. Jacqueline Phillips.
The skin is the biggest barrier to infection, and the risk of infection is greater if one has open wounds.
“Usually it takes several days for you to develop any type of symptoms,” Phillips said. “So it is safe to say, that about a week to 10 days after exposure would be when you would start to see symptoms of infection for E. coli, salmonella, shigella, and hepatitis A. You need to watch out for fevers and chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, as well as abdominal pain.”
One of the best ways to protect yourself after a major flood is to maintain good hygiene.
“If you happen to be caught in a flood, or you feel you have been exposed to anything, it is always important to make sure hygiene is the number one preventive measure that you can take to prevent infection,” Phillips said. “So hand washing, making sure whatever water you’re walking in or drinking or utilizing has been properly treated and clean.”
Floods typically flush out mosquitoes and interrupt their breeding cycle, but when the flooding stops, it’s what the floods leave behind that is often just as dangerous as what is in the water.
“Any area with standing water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes, and this increases everyone’s possible exposure to West Nile Virus and/or Zika,” Phillips said.
Flooding can cause the disruption of water purification and sewage disposal systems, overflowing of toxic waste sites and dislodgement of chemicals previously stored above ground.
Although most floods do not cause serious outbreaks of infectious disease or chemical poisonings, they can cause sickness in workers and others who come in contact with contaminated floodwater.
In addition, flooded areas may contain electrical or fire hazards connected with downed power lines.
Floodwater often contains infectious organisms, including intestinal bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella, and shigella; hepatitis A virus; and agents of typhoid, paratyphoid and tetanus.
The signs and symptoms experienced by the victims of waterborne microorganisms are similar, even though they are caused by different pathogens.
These symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, muscle aches and fever. Most cases of sickness associated with flood conditions are brought about by ingesting contaminated food or water.
Tetanus, however, can be acquired from contaminated soil or water entering broken areas of the skin, such as cuts, abrasions or puncture wounds.
Tetanus is an infectious disease that affects the nervous system and causes severe muscle spasms, known as lockjaw.
The symptoms may appear weeks after exposure and may begin as a headache, but later develop into difficulty swallowing or opening the jaw.
Floodwaters also may be contaminated by agricultural or industrial chemicals or by hazardous agents present at flooded hazardous waste sites.
Flood cleanup crew members who must work near flooded industrial sites also may be exposed to chemically contaminated floodwater. Although different chemicals cause different health effects, the signs and symptoms most frequently associated with chemical poisoning are headaches, skin rashes, dizziness, nausea, excitability, weakness and fatigue.
Pools of standing or stagnant water become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, increasing the risk of encephalitis, West Nile virus or other mosquito-borne diseases.
The presence of wild animals in populated areas increases the risk of diseases caused by animal bites (e.g., rabies) as well as diseases carried by fleas and ticks.
Protect yourself after a major flood, it is often difficult to maintain good hygiene during cleanup operations.
To avoid waterborne disease, it is important to wash your hands with soap and clean, running water. Do it especially before work breaks, meal breaks and at the end of the work shift.
Workers should assume that any water in flooded or surrounding areas is not safe unless the local or state authorities have specifically declared it to be safe.
If no safe water supply is available for washing, use bottled water, water that has been boiled for at least 10 minutes or chemically disinfected water. (To disinfect water, use 5 drops of liquid household bleach to each gallon of water and let sit for at least 30 minutes for disinfection to be completed.)
Water storage containers should be rinsed periodically with a household bleach solution. If water is suspected of being contaminated with hazardous chemicals, cleanup workers may need to wear special chemical protective outer clothing and goggles.
Before entering a contaminated area that has been flooded, you should don plastic or rubber gloves, boots, and other protective clothing needed to avoid contact with floodwater.
Decrease the risk of mosquito and other insect bites by wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and by using insect repellents.
Wash your hands with soap and water that has been boiled or disinfected before preparing or eating foods, after using the bathroom, after participating in flood cleanup activities, and after handling articles contaminated by flood waters.
In addition, children should not be allowed to play in flood waters or with toys that have been in contact with flood waters. Toys should be disinfected.
What to do if Symptoms Develop If a cleanup worker experiences any of the signs or symptoms listed above, appropriate first-aid treatment and medical advice should be sought.
If the skin is broken, particularly with a puncture wound or a wound in contact with potentially contaminated material, a tetanus vaccination may be needed if it has been five years or more since the individual’s last tetanus shot.
When to go to the ER, Tips to Remember
- 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.
- Consider all water unsafe until local authorities announce that the public water supply is safe.
- Do not use contaminated water to wash and prepare food, brush your teeth, wash dishes or make ice.
- Keep an adequate supply of safe water available for washing and potable water for drinking.
- Be alert for chemically contaminated floodwater at industrial sites.
- Use extreme caution with potential chemical and electric hazards, which have great potential for fires and explosions. Floods have the strength to move and/or bury hazardous waste and chemical containers far from their normal storage places, creating a risk for those who come into contact with them. Any chemical hazards, such as a propane tank, should be handled by the fire department or police.
- If the safety of a food or beverage is questionable, throw it out.