7 health risks in the wake of Superstorm Sandy

Posted at 7:54 AM, Nov 05, 2012
and last updated 2012-11-05 07:54:40-05

By Trisha Henry

(CNN) — In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, cold weather could put people returning to their homes at risk. Here is a bit about some of the health risks victims of the storm may face.

1. Carbon monoxide exposure

Dr. Howard Mell, spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians, lists carbon monoxide exposure as the No. 1 risk for people returning to their homes. If they lack power, and the weather is cold, they should stay somewhere else before risking a fire or carbon monoxide poisoning by using appliances such as generators or stoves indoors to heat their homes.

“A lot of these injuries come about because some of these people are in such a rush to get back into their homes,” says Mell.

2. Infections and injuries from floodwaters

There are also possible dangers from bacteria infections, hand and eye injuries, electrical injuries and mold exposure from floodwaters.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene advises people to take extra precaution around all floodwaters, especially water that may contain sewage or toxic industrial materials. Floodwaters may contain bacteria, viruses and chemicals that could make you sick.

Also, stay away from downed power lines and assume all power lines are live. Be aware there could be sharp objects in the water. Mell says hand and eye injuries are common because people may forget to wear gloves and protective glasses during cleanup.

It is also possible there is sewage in the water, and exposure can lead to gastrointestinal diseases, stomach or intestinal infections. Throwing out any food that was touched by sewage water is important.

3. Mold

Mold is a concern that may develop after your home has been exposed to standing water for an extended period. Getting the water-damaged items dried and removed is important to prevent mold growth after a flood.

4. Hypothermia

Staying warm with no power can be a challenge, especially in winter weather.

Mell suggests wearing several layers of fairly loose clothing, as each layer helps to trap the warm air. Drink warm, sweet things like hot chocolate or coffee or tea with sugar to help maintain body temperature.

When inside, try to keep the heat in and the cold out. Close off unneeded rooms, stuff towels in window cracks and under doors and cover windows with blankets. Don’t drink alcohol because it causes the body to lose heat faster.

If you think someone could have hypothermia, check their temperature, call for help and lie close to them to share your own body heat. Give the person something warm to drink.

5. Contaminated drinking water

According to the New York City Department of Health, it is safe to drink tap water in an area with flooding. Sewage overflows usually do not affect water supplies in New York City, bit it’s a case-by-case issue. Some local water utilities in New Jersey and Connecticut are under a “boil-water advisory.” But if you see or smell something odd about the water, don’t drink it.

Most public drinking water across the greater New York metropolitan area, including New York and Nassau and Suffolk counties, is fine to drink and does not need to be boiled, Marci Natale of the New York State Department of Health, said in an e-mail. But, she adds, some areas are experiencing problems. “The largest problem area is Long Beach City in Nassau County, which normally serves about 35,000 people.”

The department as of Friday was tracking 26 systems under advisories: 23 systems under boil water orders (21 caused by Sandy), and three systems under “do not use/do not drink” orders (all caused by Sandy).

6. Spoiled food

Don’t forget about food safety, especially if your food wasn’t properly refrigerated or was exposed to floodwaters. Throw away any food or drinks touched by sewage water, including packaged foods, because they can’t be appropriately disinfected – a screw-top on drinks where your mouth will make contact, for example.

7. Exacerbation of health conditions

Mell says exacerbation of chronic health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure is extremely likely in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. People don’t have access to their prescriptions, don’t know how to get to their pharmacies or how to get in touch with their doctors so they don’t take the needed drugs, he says. “Daily meds are still important, not something that can be skipped because it’s convenient.”

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