Here are some of the top health risks residents should watch for during the aftermath of this week’s devastating events.
- Swiftly moving water. Regardless of your ability to swim, flood water is incredibly dangerous and should be avoided on foot and in motor vehicles. Every year, more than 80 people across the U.S. die in floods, typically when trying to drive through standing flood water, according to The National Weather Service.
- Hypothermia. Emergency response teams have struggled to reach some towns in the Rocky Mountain foothills that were isolated by flooding and without power or telephone, according to Associated Press reports. “In places with higher elevations, hypothermia is a problem,” Dr. Poland said, noting that the risk is particularly high for children and the elderly.
- Downed power lines, wounds and other environmental hazards. Downed power lines represent a massive safety hazard after any natural disaster. If flood water has entered a home, and the main power can be turned off from a dry location, it should be. If there’s standing water, an electrician should be called, according to the CDC. Flood waters may also contain sharp objects, such as glass or metal fragments, which can wound individuals and lead to dangerous infections. Tetanus is a particular risk for individuals not up-to-date with their vaccines, Dr. Poland said.
- Mold and other respiratory irritants. Mold in flood-damaged homes represents a huge health risk, Dr. Poland said. When re-entering a water-damaged area, residents should open the windows and doors to let the home air out for at least 30 minutes before they stay for any length of time, according to the CDC. People with asthma, allergies and other lung conditions are more sensitive to the coughing and wheezing most people experience in mold-contaminated environments. Individuals with immune suppression (such as cancer or transplant patients) and people with diabetes risk mold infections — which can kill, Dr. Poland said.
- Sewage. Flood water may contain sewage, according to the CDC, so children and pets should be kept out of flooded areas until the cleanup is complete. Adults in the area should always wear protective clothing during cleanup and carefully wash and disinfect all items. Anything that cannot be washed and disinfected, such as mattresses, carpeting and upholstered furniture, should be safely thrown away.
- Food and water safety. Residents should not consume any food or water that’s possibly been contaminated, according to the FDA. “When it doubt, throw it out” is the best advice public-health officials have when it comes to food safety after the storm.
- Limited access to medications — and refrigeration. Elderly people, people with diabetes and people who have suppressed immune systems require extra care after a flood disaster, Dr. Poland said. People with diabetes, for example, require refrigerated insulin, and during power outages, this may not be available.
- Leptospirosis and infectious disease. Leptospirosis is a relatively common disease transmitted through water that has been contaminated with animal urine. Although infection is not likely, Dr. Poland said, Colorado residents should be aware of their disease risk because of the state’s large rodent population. Other infectious diseases after floods aren’t a huge concern in developed countries, he added, but residents should still watch out for mosquitos, ticks and other insects that can carry disease.
- Anxiety and stress. Those with anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses may find that their symptoms worsen after experiencing a devastating disaster, according to a review recently published online in PLoS Currents. Some individuals may develop new symptoms post-trauma. In areas that regularly risk natural disasters, such as the Jersey Shore, chromic, storm-related mental and physical stress is common, according to several studies. But there’s good news: Solid communal support among the friends, relatives and neighbors of those severe weather affects can ease anxiety and depression, and speed recovery.