Following flooding in cities from Jacksonville, Florida to Charleston, South Carolina, the devastating aftereffects of Hurricane Irma continue to mount. Millions throughout the southeast remain without power. Though recovery efforts have just begun, the hard-hit Florida Keys is beginning to reopen to residents. They are being told that, until further notice, they will have to be completely self-sufficient.
Officials agonized over the decision to reopen the Keys. They ultimately sided with the desperate need of residents to assess damage to the area and their property over the harsh living conditions those who choose to return will face, as well as health and safety issues. Such decisions are but one challenging judgment call made that goes beyond the area’s detailed hurricane plan.
The overpowering need to begin the cleanup – to start the process of recovery and restoration – is a natural one. Yet a number of emerging health hazards often follows such events. As noted a few weeks ago, the entire biology of microorganisms and pollutants in such impacted areas, both outside and inside, has changed. To stay healthy and safe from injury becomes a major concern for returning residents, as well as first responders and relief workers.
A month after Hurricane Harvey dropped an unprecedented 50 inches of rain in Houston and across southeast Texas, concerns about floodwaters contaminated with bacteria and toxins are proving to be well-founded.
While the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have expressed concern about toxic floodwaters in Houston neighborhoods, as of the time I am writing this, the results of samplings have not been made public. It is not clear how far the toxic waters have spread.
As announced this week, testing organized by the New York Times reveals some troubling results. A team of scientists from Baylor Medical College and Rice University conducted the sampling, paid for by the Times. Also participating was the Houston Health Department’s Bureau of Pollution Control and Prevention. In one neighborhood tested, the measure of fecal contamination was more than four times the accepted safe level.
Scientists from Baylor Medical College and Rice University found astonishingly high levels of E. coli in standing water in one family’s living room. It registered levels 135 times the considered safe level. In the kitchen, elevated levels of lead, arsenic and other heavy metals were found in sediment from the floodwaters. According to the New York Times report, kids were playing in the floodwater outside many of the contaminated areas tested. Despite concerns, and known breaches at numerous waste treatment plants, there remains a scarcity of information about the safety of the water.
Winifred Hamilton, director of the Environmental Health Service at Baylor College of Medicine and a member of the testing group, told the Times she is especially worried about exposure to mold among people who are returning home or who bring along their children as they try to clean and repair their houses.
“Everybody has to consider the floodwater contaminated,” David Persse, Houston’s chief medical officer told the Times.
Houston is an area surrounded by heavy industry, chemical plants, and refineries. In some neighborhoods, the smell of gasoline and other harder-to-place odors is a common complaint. In an NPR report, Loren Raun, chief scientist for the Houston Health Department, characterized the overall air quality problem in the city as “ongoing.” Those working outside, in the process of rebuilding, were cautioned to be especially vigilant of any possible health issues.
In one incident, the city health department was called to a neighborhood where air monitoring measured a concentration of benzene so high that the Center for Disease Control recommends workers exposed to that level of the chemical wear breathing protection. Short-term exposure to benzene can cause headaches and nausea. Long-term exposure can increase the risk of cancer.
At last check, the city’s air monitors are all up and running again now. In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency is also using a mobile air monitoring bus in southeast Houston to ensure safety.
Meanwhile, back in Florida, health officials in Broward County issued an advisory Thursday about the risk of food-borne illness. People are being advised to discard any food that has come in contact with floodwater. Even if it looks fine, there could be micro-breaks in the plastic. People are advised to follow the motto, “When in doubt, throw it out.”
This advice also applies to any extended power outage. When the power goes out and refrigerators and ovens are inoperable, the risk of food poisoning increases. Health officials advise people to throw away any perishable food that has been at room temperature for two hours or more, as well as any food that has an unusual odor, color or texture.
As advised by the Center for Disease Prevention, eat and drink only food and water you know is safe. If you are working in a flooded area, wear waterproof boots and gloves to avoid floodwater touching your skin. If you experience bad headaches, respiratory problems, swelling of a limb or a bad rash, see a doctor right away. Use sanitized food and water bowls for your pets and be sure they do not drink from flood-contaminated surfaces. The point being, once the extreme weather event passes, people in the area are not out of harm’s way.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.