Investigation analyzes dirty flood water in Houston

A man floats a container of items down a flooded street Friday, Sept. 1, 2017, in Houston. Thousands of people have been displaced by torrential rains and catastrophic flooding since Harvey slammed into Southeast Texas last Friday. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Hurricane Harvey, a storm described as “catastrophic” has flooded the streets and neighborhoods of Houston. “The breadth and intensity of this rainfall are beyond anything experienced before,” the National Weather Service said in a statement Sunday. “Catastrophic flooding is now underway and expected to continue for days.”

Rising flood water not only displaces people from their homes but poses significant risks to health and safety. The water itself can be full of contaminants, and even when the water subsides, what remains can be risky.

“Flood water mixes with everything below it,” says Dr. Richard Bradley, chief of the division of emergency medical services and disaster medicine at McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. “If it covers a field with pesticides, it picks up the pesticides. It can also carry animal waste from fields and forests.”

Health and environmental experts recommend people avoid intentional contact with flood water due to potentially high levels of contamination. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sayssubstances like raw sewage and other chemicals can get into the water, as storage containers of industrial chemicals or solvents can be disturbed or moved by surging flood waters.

Exposure to contaminated flood water is linked to health issues like intestinal problems, upset stomach, headache, and flu symptoms. “ Anyone experiencing these and any other problems should immediately seek medical attention,” says the EPA.

“The bacterial count in floodwater is extremely high,” says Bradley. “The chance of getting a skin infection is really quite serious.” Bradley says exposure to chemicals can cause short term poisonings or increase a person’s risk for long term health complications.

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