Hurricane Sandy Poses Serious Health Concerns

How to protect yourself against possible water contamination and the spread of infectious diseases.

Posted: 11/02/2012 11:44 AM EDT
(Photo: Daily Dish)

Since Hurricane Sandy made its way from the Caribbean to the East Coast, we have seen the devastation that natural disasters can have on our lives and our land.

Hurricane Sandy’s flooding, wind and rain has killed dozens of people, forced a million people to evacuate their homes, caused $10-$20 billion in damage, left millions without electricity for days and has basically shut down, for a time, public transit in places like Washington, D.C., and New York City. What we’ve seen with hurricanes is that unexpected events soon follow, such as fires. In Queens, New York, one fire burned down 111 homes and damaged 20 others.

This type of serious devastation can also pose some serious health risks, pollution and contamination.

In New York City, health officials are very concerned about the influx of rats running throughout the city and the potential spread of infectious diseases including leptospirosis, hantavirus, typhus and salmonella, says the Huffington Post.

According to [Rick Ostfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies] this could result in increased risk of infectious diseases carried by urban rats..."One of things we know can exacerbate disease is massive dispersal," he added. "Rats are highly social individuals and live in a fairly stable social structure. If this storm disturbs that, rats could start infesting areas they never did before."

And it's not only the bite of a rat than can transmit disease. Rodent feces and urine can spread hantavirus, for example. Still, Ostfeld suggested that the huge volume of water Sandy is expected to bring should dilute the pathogens and lessen risks to public health.

Standing stagnant water on the streets and debris can make people sick, too, says National Geographic. There are serious risks of getting electrocuted by loose wires and contamination of the water supply. And with raw sewage comes viruses and bacteria:

The most concerning urban bacteria is Escherichia coli — also known as E. coli — the organism that most mammals use for digestion. Found in the lower intestine, it can be toxic if ingested into the stomach. Floods that carry raw sewage into high density areas can spread the bacteria…

Cases of vibrio bacteria infections, which enter the body through open cuts, were reported after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas in 2005, [Joan Rose, the Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at the University of Michigan] noted. Even boaters and kayakers can pick them up. 

Potential infections were easily picked up from parasites in the water following Hurricane Katrina, which hit the U.S. Gulf Coast.

So what can people do to protect themselves?

Health officials suggest staying away from stagnant water, washing your hands as much as possible, not rubbing your eyes to avoid transmitting bacteria to the eyes, getting a tetanus vaccine if possible and avoiding floodwater at all costs.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health recommends some of the following tips, too:

Prevent carbon monoxide poisoning: If your power is out, you may try to power your home by using generators or camp stoves, which can release carbon monoxide, a colorless gas that is released from many types of equipment, builds up in closed spaces and is poisonous. Leave your home immediately and call 9-1-1 if your carbon monoxide detector sounds. Get medical help right away if you are dizzy, light-headed or nauseous.

Make sure food and water are safe: When in doubt, throw it out! If electricity in your home has been off for long periods of time, throw away foods that can spoil (like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, leftovers, etc.). If your tap water is unsafe to drink, local authorities may issue "boil water advisories." Follow boil water advisories exactly to make sure tap water is safe before you drink or use it. If you cannot boil the water, use bottled water instead.

Prevent unhealthy mold growth after flooding: Clean up and dry out flooded buildings within 24 to 48 hours if possible. To prevent mold growth, clean wet items and surfaces with detergent and water. Everything that floodwater has touched should be disinfected with a solution of one cup of bleach in one gallon of water.

With storms like Sandy can come serious health threats, the key to avoiding them is taking them very seriously.

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(Photo: Allison Joyce / Getty Images)

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