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Post-Disaster Flooding Brings Health Risks

Contaminated food and water are just one of the hazards that could make you sick

Refrigerator full of food

Sean Maylon/Getty Images

Whether from fearsome hurricanes or rising sea levels, flooding is an increasing threat to many regions of the country, bringing with it a host of health hazards that can be challenging to keep in mind as you toil to dry out your home and salvage your belongings.

But wading through brackish waters filled with things such as sewage, industrial waste and breeding mosquitoes presents a stew of threats. Expose an open cut, and you could contract tetanus or a staph infection. Breathe in contaminated droplets — especially if your lungs are compromised or you're older — and you could find yourself battling Legionnaires’ disease. Get bit by one of those moisture-loving pests when you forget to layer on the deet, and you could wind up with West Nile virus.

As people return to flooded areas after an evacuation or have to get by until power in their area is restored, many of the most common health threats are bacterial infections — and related diarrheal disease — that can be acquired by ingesting even small amounts of contaminated water or food in a kitchen that’s been doused in flood waters or left without power.

Such infections, which include E. coli and salmonella, tend to hit older people especially hard, experts say. With E. coli, for instance, while healthy adults may recover within a week, older adults often struggle longer and are also more likely to advance to a related form of life-threatening kidney failure.


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To stay safe, here are top tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration: 

When in doubt, throw it out 

Throw away food that may have come in contact with flood or storm water; this even includes food in metal cans that haven’t been scrubbed with a bleach solution. Their labels can harbor E. coli bacteria.

Throw out perishable foods that have not been refrigerated properly due to power outages. After a power outage, the refrigerator will keep food safely cold for about four hours if it is unopened. That’s not long, which means you will likely be throwing out quite a bit of food.

A full freezer will hold a safe temperature for approximately 48 hours if the door remains closed. A half-full freezer stays safe for half as long. If you’re able to plan ahead, having dry ice on hand will extend the clock.

Know good from bad water 

Do not use water you suspect or have been told is contaminated to wash dishes, brush your teeth, wash and prepare food, wash your hands, make ice or make baby formula. Safe water for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene includes bottled, boiled or treated water. 

Some water that is unsafe to drink may be safe to use for showering — but only if you are careful not to ingest any of it. That said, you can't use unsafe water to wash your hands. If you do, you could spread bacteria to your mouth.

Make sure you use soap, create a lather and scrub for at least 20 seconds to get rid of germs. Hand sanitizers need at least 60 percent alcohol to help defeat bacteria, but they won’t be effective when hands are visibly dirty and do not eliminate all types of germs that might be present after a disaster or flood.

If you don't have bottled water, you should boil water to make sure it is safe. Boiling water will kill most types of disease-causing organisms that may be present. If the water you have on hand is cloudy, filter it through a clean cloth or allow it to settle, then draw off the clear water at the top for boiling. Boil the water for one minute, let it cool and store it in clean containers with covers.

Get out the bleach

You have to sanitize anything in the kitchen that could have touched flood waters — from your dishes and utensils to your counters (if the water reached them).

For dishes and the like, wash with soap and water, using hot water if available. Then rinse them off and sanitize by boiling them in clean water or by immersing them for 15 minutes in a solution of 1 tablespoon of liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water (or the clearest, cleanest water available).

Wash counters similarly (scrubbing with soap and clean water, then wiping them down with the bleach solution). Throw out any wooden cutting boards or baby items, such as pacifiers, that might have touched flood waters.

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