“Giant Toilets You’re Unable to Flush”

Sept. 20, 2017
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After the devastating floods from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, we’re hearing a lot about the houses and other structures that have been destroyed. But what if your house was flooded and is salvageable? It’s not only water you’re dealing with—which would be bad enough—but also the many toxins and pathogens it carries. How bad can it be? Worse than you might imagine.

This article documents testing, organized and paid for by the New York Times, at several locations throughout Houston. Fecal contamination is perhaps the most immediately concerning problem; one family’s home had standing water with E. coli levels of 135 times the level considered safe. Those who must wade through the water—especially if they have open cuts or even small wounds—are at risk of infection. One man quoted in the article, who ended up in the emergency room for such an occurrence, notes that swimming pools throughout the area seem to be especially grim reservoirs for the contaminated water: “All the pools are just giant toilets you’re unable to flush,” he said.

Contaminants from commercial and industrial facilities get carried along with the floodwaters, too: lead, arsenic, benzene, dioxins, and other substances in the water and eventually in the sediments that settle out. Experts are warning not to let children play in the dirt and sand left behind, for fear of exposure to high levels of lead. This article documents some of the substances released to the air and water from industrial operations, petrochemical facilities, and Superfund sites because of Harvey.

And when the waters finally recede, there’s the mold. One of the testers, Winifred Hamilton, director of the Environmental Health Service at Baylor College of Medicine, says that mold is especially a concern when people are doing cleanup and repairs of their recently inundated homes. “I’d be wearing a mask with a filter,’’ she said, “and goggles and gloves, with rubber boots. I would change my clothes immediately after leaving the house, and put them in the wash with nothing else.”

The effect on drinking water is also a concern, as Laura Sanchez of Water Efficiency magazine discusses here. More than one hundred water systems in Texas were either shut down or advising customers to boil the water, and officials warned those who get their water from private wells to consider it contaminated until testing proved otherwise.

If you’re in an area that has experienced widespread flooding of structures—in the recent hurricanes or at any time—what precautions and extra testing have you advised?

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines. 

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