The flooding and wind damage was bad enough, but now those already in or returning to flooded areas have another challenge – tainted water that threatens to pollute ravaged areas for an indefinite amount of time.
“This is a major disaster,” Lynn Katz, a professor in the civil, architectural and environmental engineering department at the University of Texas, told the Austin American-Statesman. “The first goal is to keep people safe in the short term, and get them clean water and clean air. Beyond that, you have to look at providing a sustainable, healthy environment in the future.”
The article also noted that E. coli bacteria levels were 125 times higher than is considered safe for swimming. Terry Gentry, a researcher at Texas A&M University, said those readings are a strong indication that other contaminants, including bacteria, viruses and other potential disease-causing organisms, are also present in the water.
The US Environmental Protection Agency is working with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to address these and other health concerns in the Hurricane Harvey aftermath.
The EPA notes that 4,500 drinking water systems were potentially affected. More than 1,514 were reported to be fully operational, 166 were requiring customers to boil water, 50 were shut down, and the rest are being evaluated. Of 2,460 wastewater treatment operations, 1,656 were fully operational. Systems are being monitored by federal and state officials.
A news story published by the Associated Press indicated that at least 13 sites that the EPA named as contaminated had been flooded after the storm and were not being monitored. The EPA has disputed this, saying that 145 EPA workers and about 500 TCEQ employees were working on these and other environmental issues.
“EPA and TCEQ are working together, along with other local, state, and federal authorities and emergency responders around the clock to address the human health and environmental impacts of Hurricane Harvey and its effects, especially historic and devastating flooding throughout Southeast Texas,” an EPA press release stated.
The Texas Department of State Health Services offers the following advice for those dealing with flooding aftermath:
- Check with local media for updates on conditions in your area and information from local leaders.
- Listen to announcements about drinking water safety and boil water notices.
- Avoid going into floodwaters whenever possible because of dangers from bacteria, chemicals and debris.
- Do not run electrical generators inside your home because of the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning.
A major concern from contaminated floodwaters is the possibility of diarrheal illnesses. This can also result in nausea and abdominal cramps. The TDSHS notes that most mild cases of diarrhea can be treated at home by drinking plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. However, if the problem continues, if there is blood present or fever of more than 100 degrees, you should consult a doctor.
The Occupational Safety & Health Administration notes that flood water contains numerous organisms capable of infecting people and animals. In addition to E. coli, these include salmonella, shigella, Hepatitis A, and waterborne microorganisms that can cause typhoid, paratyphoid and tetanus.
While the biggest risk from most of the contaminants is from ingesting contaminated food or water, tetanus can be present in contaminated soil or water and enter the body through breaks in the skin. “Tetanus is an infectious disease that affects the nervous system and causes muscle spasms, known as lockjaw,” OSHA notes.
Pools of stagnant water can also serve as mosquito breeding grounds, and these pests can spread diseases such as encephalitis, West Nile virus and other diseases. You can reduce the risk of mosquito bites by wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants and using insect repellent.
To reduce the risk of infection from contaminated water, people should be sure to wash their hands with soap and clean water. If clean tap water is unavailable, OSHA recommends using bottled water, boiled water that has cooled, or chemically disinfected water. To disinfect water, add five drops of bleach to each gallon of water and let it sit for at least 30 minutes before using it.
The floodwaters will eventually recede from areas affected by Hurricane Harvey, in some areas more quickly than in others. Until then, it’s important to stay safe.