Dangerous Health Effects from Floodwaters in Houston
American Lung Association issues warning
(May 13, 2019) - HOUSTON
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The destruction of homes and communities in the aftermath of storms and flooding is tragic, and the cleanup creates potential for serious and long-lasting threats to health, the American Lung Association warns. The Lung Association stresses the importance of beginning cleanup efforts as soon as floodwaters recede. Chemicals, sewage, oil, gas and other dangerous substances found in floodwaters can pose health risks to area residents.
“Standing water and dampness is a breeding ground for bacteria, viruses and mold,” said American Lung Association Chief Medical Officer Albert Rizzo, M.D. “These can become airborne and inhaled, putting people at risk for lung disease. In fact, mold has been associated with wheezing, coughing, and in some cases asthma attacks, and evidence links mold with respiratory illness in otherwise healthy children.”
People who live in areas that are prone to natural disaster should create emergency plans that include appropriate supplies of medication, food, water and shelter. This may be especially critical for those on oxygen therapy, according to Rizzo. Additionally, it’s important to have contact information readily available for your local public health office, fire department and your hospital or health provider in case of emergency.
After a flood, cleaning up affected homes and household items immediately once the water recedes is vital to protecting respiratory health. Mold can grow anywhere there is water or dampness. The American Lung Association offers the following guidelines to help you and your family stay healthy as floodwaters recede:
- Protect yourself before returning to your building. During cleanup, you risk inhaling dust, contaminants and microorganisms; which are unhealthy for anyone to breathe, but especially risky for children, older adults and people with lung diseases. Wear protective clothing, including gloves, rubber boots and a NIOSH-certified N95 mask to protect you from breathing these particles. NOTE: N95 masks must be fitted and are suited only for adults. Ordinary dust masks cannot provide adequate protection.
- Turn off the electricity and gas at the main location during cleanup. In addition, do not use portable gasoline- or diesel-powered generators, power washers, grills, camp stoves or other gasoline, propane or charcoal-burning equipment and other devices inside. These produce carbon monoxide that can kill occupants if it builds up indoors.
- When in doubt, toss it out! Remove everything that has been soaked by water, including clothing, papers, furnishings, carpet, ceiling tiles and wallboard. Anything that cannot be cleaned and dried and anything porous (like drywall or carpet) that had been in floodwaters for 24 to 48 hours recede must be discarded. Simply drying out water will not remove the bacteria or toxins that can make people sick. Damp buildings and furnishings promote the growth of bacteria, dust mites, cockroaches and mold, which can aggravate asthma and allergies and may cause the development of asthma, wheeze, cough and other allergic diseases. Dangerous substances in floodwaters can include sewage, chemicals, oil and gas which can saturate materials in the home and give off harmful gases.
- Use soap and water for cleaning, especially to scrub mold off hard surfaces. Do not use bleach, which can make it hard to breathe.
- Consider hiring professional cleaners. Individuals with lung disease should seek help cleaning their homes and workplaces after floods. If more than 10 square feet of your home is flooded or if water has been in the building for more than one or two days, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends hiring professional cleaners. Flood waters bring in nasty residue that may contaminate porous building materials. Mold flourishes in this environment. Attempting to clean without professional help may increase the risk of developing respiratory problems from these exposures.
- Do not burn debris or waste, which adds dangerous pollution to the air. Remove it to a designated disposal area.
- Keep an eye on symptoms. It is not uncommon for people to develop health problems after a disaster even if they’ve never had problems before. Be aware of any breathing problems that may arise, including:
- Coughing, especially at night
- Wheezing or feeling short of breath
- Chest tightness or pain
- Get immediate emergency medical help if fingernails or lips are turning blue or if there is severe chest pain. Both could be life-threatening.
If you are worried about your family’s lung health and have questions, call 1-800-LUNGUSA to talk to an American Lung Association respiratory therapist. More information on how lung health is affected by flooding is available at Lung.org/flood.
For media interested in speaking with an expert about lung health and floodwaters, contact the American Lung Association at [email protected] or 312-445-2501.
About the American Lung Association
The American Lung Association is the leading organization working to save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease, through research, education and advocacy. The work of the American Lung Association is focused on four strategic imperatives: to defeat lung cancer; to improve the air we breathe; to reduce the burden of lung disease on individuals and their families; and to eliminate tobacco use and tobacco-related diseases. For more information about the American Lung Association, a holder of the coveted 4-star rating from Charity Navigator and a Gold-Level GuideStar Member, or to support the work it does, call 1-800-LUNGUSA (1-800-586-4872) or visit: Lung.org.
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