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Health Concerns Linger After Hurricane Harvey

discarded items outside house

Sept. 7, 2017 -- The hurricane has gone, but health concerns and disease risk remain for all who went through it.

Even healthy people, after Harvey’s destructive force, could face health hazards related to polluted air, contaminated water, infected wounds, mold, contagious diseases, carbon monoxide, and mosquitoes.

"Going back into the flood environment has risks," says Albert Rizzo, MD, senior medical adviser for the American Lung Association.

The cleanup itself can be hazardous, he says, exposing people to the dangers Harvey left behind. Being aware of the risks and taking precautions can lessen health problems.

Risks in the Air

People with lung conditions, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), have to be especially wary of air pollution after the storm, experts say.  

"Wearing some type of protective mask might be advisable," says Rizzo, who's also section chief of pulmonary medicine for Christiana Care Health System in Newark, DE. He recommends N95 masks, which filter out 95% of fine airborne particles. "The smaller the particles [of contaminants], the more troublesome," he says.

The masks are sold at hardware, home supply, and medical supply stores. When rebuilding starts, he says, even more contaminants will be in the air. During construction, dust and fibers are likely to be released from drywall, plaster, flooring, and other sources, and they can irritate the lungs.

When the particulate count -- or amount of harmful particles in the air -- is high, coughs are common. Some people may not be able to shake that cough. After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, local doctors dubbed patients' lingering respiratory symptoms -- including cough, runny nose, and sinus problems -- ''Katrina cough."

Although researchers debate whether people who live through hurricanes have more respiratory issues, one study of more than 1,200 children and teens found that younger people in hurricane areas are more likely to get upper and lower respiratory infections after the storm.

Keep an eye on the local air quality reports, Rizzo says, and plan to stay indoors when it's bad. Check local conditions at the EPA’s website, www.airnow.gov.

Portable devices like electric generators and cooking stoves can give off carbon monoxide, Rizzo says. The colorless, odorless gas killed 10 people after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, according to the CDC.

To avoid the gas, don't use a generator inside your home, basement, or garage or less than 20 feet from doors, windows, or vents. Don't run a generator inside unless it is professionally installed and vented.

Carbon monoxide can result in sudden illness and death if you inhale it, the CDC warns. Common symptoms are headache, dizziness, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. People who are sleeping and exposed to the gas, or drinking alcohol, can die from the poisoning before even noticing symptoms, the CDC says.

Mold, too, can be a danger.

"Mold will be a potential irritant to those who have a lung problem," Rizzo says, "but even [to] those without.'' The quicker cleanup is done the better, he says. The ideal window to prevent mold is within 48 hours.

Things that soak up water and can't be cleaned and dried quickly need to be removed. That often means removing carpeting, upholstery, drywall, and insulation.

To clean mold, mix a cup of household bleach with a gallon of uncontaminated water. Or, lightly mist mold spores with rubbing alcohol. In some cases, you might need a professional mold service.

Open all doors and windows to air out your home, and use fans to dry wet areas.

Risks in the Water

Floodwaters and standing water make disease more likely. Floodwater may contain sewage and toxic chemicals. Anyone who accidentally swallows floodwaters could get stomach problems.

Houston-area hospitals have seen quite a few storm survivors with skin infections after being exposed to floodwaters, the Houston Chronicle reports. Wounds that stayed wet for a long time became infected, hospital officials say.

If a wound is minor, self-care is OK, the CDC says. That involves washing your hands, cleaning the wound with soap and water, and examining it for dirt and other debris. Cover with a dry clean cloth or adhesive bandage.

Contrary to some previous media coverage, exposure to floodwaters does not make tetanus more likely, the CDC says. No mass tetanus immunizations are needed due to the hurricane, says Amesh Adalja, MD, a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America and a senior associate at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Baltimore.

CDC guidelines suggest tetanus shots every 10 years. If you get a wound during flood cleanup, make sure you are up to date on your shot, experts suggest.

Risks All Around You

As Texans escaped flooded homes to shelters, the risk of catching what their shelter neighbors brought with them was real, says Adalja. "People are exposed to others who may have respiratory or GI illness," he says. "There is less emphasis on personal hygiene."

And that can become a blueprint for the spread of colds, intestinal distress, and other ailments that can spread quickly, he says.

That Buzzing Sound Is Bad, Too

"We're at the tail end of mosquito season," Adalja says. Still, "Texas is home to many mosquito-borne illnesses," including dengue fever, West Nile virus and chikungunya virus.

Several videos of swarms of mosquitoes in Texas since the hurricane have been posted to YouTube and other social media websites.

Besides wearing insect repellent, one of the best ways to control the mosquito population is to get rid of standing water, Adalja says. And that means all of it. "A mosquito needs only a bottle cap [of water] to lay eggs," he says.

WebMD Article Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on September 07, 2017

Sources

Amesh Adalja, MD, spokesman, Infectious Diseases Society of America, and senior associate, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Baltimore.

Albert Rizzo, MD, senior medical adviser, American Lung Association, and section chief, pulmonary medicine, Christiana Care Health System, Newark, DE.

CDC: "Safe Cleanup After Hurricane Harvey," "Flood Water After a Disaster or Emergency," "Emergency Wound Care After a Natural Disaster," "Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning After an Emergency," "Worker Safety After a Flood," "Maintaining Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) during Construction and Renovation."

Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report, March 10, 2006: "Carbon Monoxide Poisonings After Two Major Hurricanes -- Alabama and Texas, August-October 2005."

Houston Chronicle: "Hospitals see uptick in skin infections from Harvey," Sept. 6, 2017.

Public Health Reports: "Adverse Respiratory Symptoms and Environmental Exposures Among Children and Adolescents Following Hurricane Katrina."

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