As with any natural disaster, flooding occurs quickly and with little warning. Rising waters cause physical and emotional damage, but the water itself is contaminated with chemicals, fecal matter and waste products that pose a public health risk. The Atlanta area has recently suffered extensive flooding and prompts us to make a few health related observations about rising waters and your health.
Apart from the obvious damage that flood waters cause to personal possessions they harbor many unseen dangers. Flood waters contain fecal material from overflowing sewage systems, and agricultural and industrial byproducts and chemicals. Contact with your skin by itself does not pose a serious health risk, however there is a risk of disease from eating or drinking anything contaminated with flood water or exposure from a open cut. If you have any open cuts or sores that will be exposed to flood water, keep them as clean as possible by washing well with soap to control infection. If a wound develops redness, swelling or drainage please seek immediate medical attention.
Children in particular are at risk to develop waterborne illness. Along with yourself help them practice basic hygiene during the high water period by washing hands with soap and water that has been boiled or disinfected. This should be done before preparing or eating food, after using a toilet, and after handling articles contaminated with flood water or sewage. Obviously, children should not be allowed to play in the flood water and avoid ingesting flood water. Parents should not allow children to play with flood-water contaminated toys that have not been disinfected. Disinfection can be done by using a solution of one cup of bleach in 5 gallons of water.
Carbon Monoxide poisoning is also a known hazard after flooded situations. Many gasoline or diesel powered pumps and generators are used during the clean-up process. These devices release carbon monoxide, a deadly, colorless, odorless gas which can be deadly. It is difficult to assess appropriate ventilation as a result it is recommended that these devices only be operated outdoors.
Standing in water which is colder than 75 degrees F will remove body heat more rapidly than it can be replaced, resulting in hypothermia. To reduce the risk of hypothermia, wear rubber boots and take frequent breaks out of the water. Change into dry clothing when possible.
Floods can occur during all seasons and must be considered a public health risk. Take necessary precautions to keep your family safe even after the initial threat of rising water abates.