Protecting Your Health After Hurricane Harvey
(August 31, 2017)
At the American Lung Association, we extend our deepest sympathy and support for the families and communities impacted by the devastation from Hurricane Harvey. Floods and natural disasters of this kind can put anyone's lungs at risk, but members of your family facing the greatest risk include children, older adults and those living with lung diseases. We've put together a list of resources to answer your questions about lung health.
Flooding continues, so if you need to evacuate your home, make sure to take all necessary medications with you, including anything you may need to manage your asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Also, be careful of flood water and mud, as both contain chemicals, sewage and floating debris.
Stay alert to warnings from responsible officials to avoid or evacuate areas where chemical leaks, explosions, and other threats may exist. Safety is the most important thing.
Be aware, too, that some people develop lung problems after a natural disaster, even if they have never had them before. Don't wait to get medical help if someone in your family starts having breathing problems. Some warning signs are: coughing, especially coughing at night; wheezing or feeling short of breath; and chest tightness or pain.
Cleanup after flood waters recede
Once the flood waters have receded and emergency officials have indicated it's safe, you can return to your home. It may be overwhelming, but making a plan can help you ensure the safety of you and your family. Here are a few tips:
- Do not enter a damaged building until it has been certified as safe by a building inspector. Leave immediately if you hear or feel the building shifting.
- If you smell gas, notify emergency authorities immediately and do not return home until you are told it is safe.
- If electrical circuits and equipment have gotten wet, turn off the power and get an electrical inspection before you turn the power back on.
- Know that even checking out the damage can be hot, heavy work and unexpected hazards can exist. Go with a partner who can help. Don't go in if you have asthma or allergies or another lung disease.
- Check out information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about water supply and other issues in returning home.
Do not cook indoors with gas or diesel generators, charcoal stoves, grills or portable camping stoves. These devices release carbon monoxide that is deadly when trapped indoors.
Before you clean up, make sure safety is your number one priority. Turn off all gas and electricity and wear the proper safety attire, including N95 masks, heavy gloves and boots to protect your lungs, eyes and skin. Next, do your best to contain the water-damaged areas and objects by tracing the water's pathways. Try to avoid exposing anyone not in proper attire to these items and areas.
All objects and furnishings must be thoroughly cleaned and dried before reusing because they may contain toxins and mold. If an object cannot be cleaned or it is severely damaged, discard it properly. The best option is to allow your local county or city waste disposal service to remove your debris. Separate yard waste from other storm debris, as many communities dispose of that differently. Do not burn any debris, including branches, tree, or other yard waste—that only adds to dangerous pollution in the air. Your local agencies may have other guidance for disposing for specific waste.
The news warns that airborne chemical leaks are happening. The Lung Association recommends that you follow instructions from local emergency experts and evacuate, if told to do so. Again, remember to bring all your proper medications if you leave your home. If told to stay indoors, do so and close your windows and vents until notified that it is safe.
If you have a lung disease, it's important to keep up with your medications. Remember to take your medications with you if you must evacuate. Contact your doctor if you have run out or lost your medicines or can't remember what you are supposed to be taking. The interactive RxOpen map shows open and closed pharmacies in the region affected by Hurricane Harvey. Citizens and first responders are encouraged to use this map as an initial resource, and to call their pharmacy to ensure their specific medication is in stock.
See How to find critical medical care if you're a hurricane survivor (via PBS) for more medical care information.
Toll-free Lung HelpLine: Lung health questions and cleanup guidance
For further questions about protecting your lung health during flood clean up, managing your lung disease during a natural disaster or airborne chemical leaks, contact our lung health experts at 1-800-LUNG-USA (1-800-586-4852).
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—Precautions when returning to your home.
- DisasterAssistance.gov—Steps to receive disaster assistance.
- Federal Emergency Management Agency—FEMA's current site on flood insurance.
- How to find critical medical care if you're a hurricane survivor—PBS article on medical support in Houston and Southeast Texas.
- Lung.org/flood—more information from the Lung Association on floods and water damage.
- Ready.gov/floods—U.S. Department of Homeland Security information on preparing for and recovering from flooding.
- RxOpen map—shows open and closed pharmacies in the region affected by Hurricane Harvey.
- U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development—Information on returning to your home after disasters.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—Information on preparing for and recovery after flooding.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration—Information on food and water safety during floods.