With caution, water conservation, health risks from flooding are low

Monday, May 3, 2010 at 2:00pm

Local officials are advising individuals to use caution in areas affected by flooding to mitigate risk for injury or illness. There may be a health risk to entering floodwaters. As well, officials are asking residents to limit their water usage by half of what is normal. 

Officials advise Middle Tennesseans to avoid entering floodwaters. Individuals may be swept away in deep water that is moving more swiftly than it appears, resulting in injury or drowning. In addition, there is risk of injury from coming into contact with submerged objects, and the water itself is likely contaminated with sewage or other hazardous materials.

“I would handle all water as if it’s got sewage in it, to be on the safe side,” said Dr. Tim Jones, state epidemiologist for the Tennessee Department of Health, citing widespread reports of overflowing drainage and sewage systems.

“There are lots of pictures and stories of people going out and playing in the water, and that’s not a good idea,” he said. “If you do have contact with it, wash your hands very thoroughly before you put them in your mouth or handle any foods.”

Such simple hygiene should eliminate most health risks: Cuts or wounds that come into contact with floodwater should be cleaned immediately with soap and clean water. And, in the interest of conserving clean water in the metro area, officials ask individuals to use disinfecting gels to keep hands clean.

Dr. Bill Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said “the risk of so-called infectious disease from the water is pretty small.”

Thus far the Health Department has received no reports of infections or illnesses from the floodwater, Jones said.

Centennial Medical Center and Vanderbilt University Medical Center both report lower than normal emergency department volumes with few, if any, flood-related injuries.

“Our census is way down,” said Centennial spokeswoman Jenny Barker. “Yesterday we saw only 37 patients, which is far below what we even see with a snowstorm. So it seems like the Mayor’s call to keep people at home is cutting down on injuries for the most part.”

The water supply

Metro Water Services Director Scott Potter said the region’s water supply is safe at this time, but he asked that every citizen use half the water they normally use, adding that limiting usage to drinking and food preparation is a good start.

“If we don’t do that, we will have a problem,” Potter said.

Davidson County’s water treatment processes are operating at half capacity with the K.R. Harrington Water Treatment Plant completely underwater. A treatment plant in Bellevue is operating at half capacity right now, Potter said, but the fear is if the water in the system drops too low, pressure from groundwater could burst its pipes, causing contamination.

Individuals are asked to avoid showers or washing clothes and use disinfecting gels to keep hands clean.

Food safety

Individuals who have lost electricity should throw away any perishable food items that have been at 40 degrees or higher for two hours or more, Jones said. Items in a closed refrigerator should be safe for four hours; fully-stocked freezers should keep food safe for two days if the door remains closed. A half-full freezer will keep food safe for about a day.

Food inspectors will be visiting local restaurants hat have been without power for 12 hours or more to avoid a widespread public health issue.

If there is any question about whether or not a particular food item is safe, it should be thrown away, Jones said.

Flood cleanup

After flood waters have receded, individuals should be aware of ongoing safety risks from contamination.

As weather permits, open windows and doors and use fans and dehumidifiers to aide in the drying out process. When cleaning up, be sure to wear protective clothing: waterproof gloves and boots, etc.

Items that can’t be washed and disinfected, like rugs, upholstered furniture, mattresses and the like should be discarded. Drywall and insulation that has been contaminated with floodwaters will need to be removed. There is a significant risk of mold if home have been underwater and closed for several days.

Hard surfaces may be disinfected using a mixture of one cup of bleach in five gallons of clean water.

Schaffner also advises individuals to use caution when moving, lifting and dragging items during the cleanup process to avoid injury or heart problems.

“Be very judicious, particularly people of a certain age, about how vigorously you pursue your cleanup,” he said.