Floods & Your Health
In last week’s Hot Off the Press column, I covered the health risks New Orleans residents have been facing since floodwaters inundated their city. But drinking polluted water is only one of the ways you may become ill if your town floods during a disaster.
Germs and hazardous substances can enter your body in several ways:
- You can inhale contaminants through your lungs. These include airborne viruses, evaporated oil products, mold spores, mosquito-borne infections and smoke from fires.
- You can ingest contaminated food or water. Any food items that have touched floodwaters—including unopened cans or sealed packages—also put you at risk, as containers have been exposed to bacteria.
- Germs can penetrate the skin if you have even the smallest cut, rash or exposed area. If waters contain bacteria, they become a breeding ground for disease. You can develop dermatitis (an inflammation of the skin), and if your feet have been submerged in contaminated waters and remain wet for an extended period, you’re at risk for immersion foot (also called “trench foot”).
Floodwaters may contain pesticides, herbicides and lead/heavy metals—all of which you may be forced to wade through. In addition, you run the risk of cutting yourself on sharp debris or getting your feet caught in unstable pockets or holes. In some areas, drop-offs may be surprisingly deep, and you can become submerged in a matter of seconds. Downed electric lines from high winds may also be hidden in waters—and they may still carry an electrical charge.
So, how do you keep your family safe when your community experiences a flood?
Your best defense is knowledge:
- Avoid flooded areas, whenever possible.
- Maintain proper hygiene, such as frequent handwashing and showering, as the situation allows.
- Use the utility wrench in American Family Safety’s Ready-Kit™ to turn off the water in your home to prevent additional flooding and pipe problems.
- Understand all of the potential health risks—and then take precautions to minimize them.
“Floodwaters may contain fecal material from overflowing sewage systems and agricultural and industrial byproducts,” confirms the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Although skin contact with floodwater does not, by itself, pose a serious health risk, there is some risk of disease from eating or drinking anything contaminated with floodwater. If you have any open cuts or sores that will be exposed to floodwater, keep them as clean as possible by washing well with soap to control infection. If a wound develops redness, swelling or drainage, seek immediate medical attention.”
The CDC offers the following guidelines for handwashing in disaster or emergency situations:
- Place your hands together under water (warm water, if possible).
- Rub your hands together for at least 15 to 20 seconds (with soap, if possible). Wash all surfaces well, including wrists, palms, backs of hands, fingers and under the fingernails.
- Clean the dirt from under your fingernails.
- Rinse the soap from your hands.
- Dry your hands completely with a clean towel, if possible. (This helps remove the germs). If towels are unavailable, it is OK to air-dry your hands.
- Pat your skin dry, rather than rubbing it, to avoid chapping and cracking.