The Hidden Health Hazards After Flooding

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September 13, 2017 | 20,916 views

Story at-a-glance

  • Floodwaters that covered Houston, Texas, and the surrounding cities are deeper than from any other hurricane that has hit the U.S. coastline; although predicted, the scale of the storm appeared to take the city by surprise
  • Houston's infrastructure was not designed to withstand hurricane rains, leading to the shutdown of several refineries. Toxic emissions have affected local residents, who suffer headaches, sore throat and itchy eyes
  • Based on experience after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Houston may expect to have long-term problems with mold growth in many structures, potentially affecting thousands in years to come

By Dr. Mercola

Across the world, countries have experienced significant changes in weather patterns in the past decades.1 Recently, the southern U.S. coastline was again hit with category 4 hurricane winds, dumping over 50 inches of rain on Texas.2 People in Louisiana are still digging themselves out of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and experts expect Houston may experience the same long-term consequences that have affected the residents of New Orleans.

Meteorologists are calling the flooding and storms that hit Texas "like no other."3 However, scientists did expect the storm,4 and expect even more over the coming years. In fact, the National Weather Service records Hurricane Harvey as the 25th 500-year flood to occur in the U.S. since 2010. The amount of rain that fell was in a class by itself. Only tropical storm Amelia was close, dropping 48 inches over Texas' Guadalupe River basin in 1978.

While scientists did predict a storm would hit the coast of Texas, the scale of the storm appeared to take the city by surprise. Warmer ocean temperatures created more energy for the storm to tap,5 as a hurricane converts ocean warmth into rain.6 Houston's infrastructure could not deal with the magnitude of the storm. City planners had made changes that reduced the ability of the land to drain.7 City officials also didn't expect the storm to reign as much destruction as it did.

As Hurricane Harvey was due to make landfall, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued this statement, which was then contradicted by local officials,8 "Even if an evacuation order hasn't been issued by your local official, if you're in an area between Corpus Christi and Houston, you need to strongly consider evacuating."

While not as many were able to evacuate as would have been optimal, Houston and surrounding cities will still face decades of rebuilding to regain previous manufacturing ability and reclaim land and structures from Mother Nature. In the interim, residents are facing short-term and long-term problems in much the same way residents of other areas hard hit by hurricanes and massive amounts of water damage, such as Red Hook, New York, after Hurricane Sandy and Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.

Houston Evacuees First Seeking Shelter and Health Care

Meteorologists first noticed the development of tropical storm Harvey on August 17, 2017.9 The storm was downgraded to a tropical depression August 19, but it then regenerated and quickly gained strength before making landfall the following week. Before rescuers picked through debris, the death count from the storm had reached 45. Nearly 1,800 fatalities were attributed to Hurricane Katrina.10 Experts believe the number of deaths in Houston won't be as high.

The majority of those who die during the immediate flooding drown.11 Just 2 feet of rapidly moving water can sweep away an SUV weighing up to 6,000 pounds.12 Many underestimate the power of water. If 6 inches of water is moving quickly, it can easily knock over an adult.

However, deaths attributed to the storm are only the first casualties to be counted. In the coming weeks, months and years it will be necessary for the cities flooded by Hurricane Harvey to address structural damages. In the immediate time period this includes finding adequate shelter for the inhabitants of the 48,700 homes that sustained flood damage.13 Vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, those who are chronically or mentally ill and the homeless, are especially at risk during a storm and in the aftermath.

Getting people out of harm's way is the first goal for rescuers. However, as people begin entering shelters, rescuers also have to address their physical needs, as well as mental concerns that result from overwhelming stress and anxiety.

Respiratory and gastrointestinal problems occur from exposure during heavy rain, as people try to salvage food and water or are exposed to airborne toxins. Others with pre-existing conditions need immediate care to avoid a life-threatening situation, such as those who have kidney disease, heart disease or diabetes.14

Floodwaters also affect wild animals that may be attempting to flee the rising water, such as snakes that are flooded out of their homes, increasing the potential for snakebites.15 Floodwaters contain more than rain, debris and unexpected wild animals. Flooded sewer systems spill out, increasing the risks of infections. Following Hurricane Katrina, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 30 cases of MRSA, a staphylococcus bacterium resistant to antibiotics, in the evacuees from New Orleans sent to Dallas.

Severe flooding also knocks over power lines, causing power outages and risks from live wires. Homeowners who use portable power generators may be at risk from breathing carbon monoxide gasses.

A review of natural disasters found that 83 percent of deaths from carbon monoxide gas could be attributed to operating portable generators for temporary power.16 Damage to the Texas community may reach or exceed $160 billion for cleanup, equal to the combined cost of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and leave the fourth largest city in the U.S. uninhabitable for weeks.17

Infections After Flooding Driven by Several Factors

Once the initial days of rescue and relocation are underway, experts recognize there may be a growing concern for individuals who suffer from infections. The factors affecting risk associated with mass flooding are many. Crammed together in tight-quartered shelters, the potential for the spread of respiratory infection rises dramatically.18 Coupled with the inevitable poor sanitation from lack of a clean water supply, individuals are also at risk for contracting gastrointestinal viruses that also spread quickly.

The uncertainty of what happens next takes a significant mental toll on everyone, negatively impacting the immune system and increasing the risk of further infection and physical sickness, as well as rising numbers suffering from situational anxiety and depression.

Although the risk of infection rises, access to medical care, clean food and water and prescription medications decline. Thomas Tighe, president and chief executive of the medical nonprofit Direct Relief, believes a lot was learned from the medical care needed after Hurricane Katrina and in the 12 years since.19

In those years, medications have been stockpiled along the Texas coast and other areas prone to hurricanes. Several consumer pharmacies in Houston have stayed open despite the storm, operating on portable generators to help distribute needed medications and antibiotics.

Standing water is a prime target for mosquitoes to lay eggs and explode the local population. During the flood, containers that are often breeding grounds for mosquitoes are washed away. After the water recedes, the mosquito population recovers rapidly, and the number of diseases they carry may more than double in areas in the path of the hurricane. Following Hurricane Katrina, experts noted an increase in the spread of arboviruses commonly passed by mosquitoes, such as West Nile virus and dengue.20

Forget Tetanus as Bacterial Infection Is More Likely

Texas health officials are recommending people get a tetanus shot to protect against the disease if they should get a cut.21 These suggestions are based on the idea that contact with flood water will increase your risk of contracting the potentially life-threatening illness. However, more health experts call this an "old wives' tale … a myth."22

Michael Osterholm, Ph.D., director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, is concerned that authorities in the affected areas may recommend mass tetanus vaccinations. The CDC agrees, stating,23 "Exposure to floodwaters does not increase the risk of tetanus and tetanus immunization campaigns are not needed."

The perception that a tetanus shot is needed after a flood is widespread. Following Hurricane Andrew 25 years ago, the health care system was swamped with the demand for tetanus shots.24 The CDC and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration do recommend people involved in the cleanup process after a flood are up to date with their tetanus shots to prevent the disease if they suffer a puncture wound wading through floodwaters and removing sharp-edged debris.

The disease is also known by the common name, lockjaw. Caused by the bacterium Clostridium tetani, it produces a toxin in your body that affects your nervous system to trigger stiffening of your muscles and severe breathing difficulties that may be fatal.25 While there is treatment available, it is not uniformly effective, and the fatality rate is close to 20 percent.26 However, the rate of infection in the U.S. is extremely low, with just an average of 30 reported cases each year.

The most common ways of contracting tetanus are through puncture wounds, exposure to saliva or feces from an infected animal or person, and burns or wounds with necrotic (dead) areas.27 Symptoms of fever, diarrhea and headache start seven to 10 days after you are exposed to the bacterium.

Toxic Fumes Flood Houston After Water Damages Petrol Plants

Workers and residents in Houston are also contending with toxic fumes that have been released from local petrol refineries forced to shut down quickly due to flooding and power outages.28 Residents in the industrial fence-line communities first reported foul fumes within hours of the flooding, with some residents experiencing headaches, sore throat and itchy eyes. Though these are much the same symptoms of allergic reactions, the source of the irritant is not harmless like pollen, but has long-term effects on your health.

The smells are concentrated over East End Houston, but the chemicals may travel in the wind over longer distances in lower concentrations than the human nose can detect. Bryan Parras, an activist with the grassroots environmental justice group TEJAS, suspects the source of the chemical smells to be from numerous refineries in the Houston area as they are shutting down, causing an abnormal event.29 According to a report issued by the Environmental Integrity Project that evaluated emissions from refineries:30

"Because pollution released during upsets is almost never monitored, reports are based on estimates that can understate actual releases by an order of magnitude or more. The short-term impact of these events can also be substantial.

Upsets or sudden shutdowns can release large plumes of sulfur dioxide or toxic chemicals in just a few hours, exposing downwind communities to peak levels of pollution that are much more likely to trigger asthma attacks and other respiratory systems. The working class and minority populations typical of neighborhoods near refineries and chemical plants bear the brunt of this pollution."

Shell and Mobile oil companies have shut down their refineries in Houston and the Corpus Cristi area, among others, amounting to a nearly 1 million barrels per day loss.31 Even if the damage from flooding is controlled rapidly, the refineries won't be able to open quickly, leaving thousands out of work and driving gas prices up at the pump.

Long-Term Consequences of Flooding Not Immediately Apparent

As difficult and heartbreaking as most of the immediate effects are, the long-term devastation from mold will be experienced by home and business owners for decades. Mold is a toxic hurricane holdover. Mary Hayden of the National Center for Atmospheric Research notes that evacuees may not be able to return to their homes for up to three weeks.32 During that time, waterlogged homes will bake in the sun, giving mold ample time to grow in most of the walls and homeowners' belongings.

Mold growth after Hurricane Katrina was implicated in the deaths of four Southern University at New Orleans professors, who all worked in the same building damaged by the storm and died within a few months of each other.33

The economic loss and water damage from mold can be severe. In the Houston area, nearly 20 trillion gallons of water poured over the city as just the past month President Trump nullified requirements put in place by the previous administration to build infrastructure projects that would be able to withstand rising sea levels.34 The same infrastructure and topography that has kept the water from draining quickly creates a prolonged period for fungal growth that will be felt for decades.

Dangers of Consistent Mold Exposure

The dangers of mold exposure are varied and may place your health in jeopardy. Former actress Suzanne Somers knows firsthand the health effects that may impact your life and potentially ruin your health.

In this short video Somers describes her journey into and recovery from illnesses that resulted from toxic mold growing in a house they rented after their home burned down. Somers' health effects resulted from the mold settling into her intestines, leading to a misdiagnosis of cancer, and in her husband, symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), all mold has the potential to cause ill health.35 Following Hurricane Katrina, researchers evaluated toxic levels in areas that required cleanup, determining that those cleaning and repairing flood damaged homes really must wear respirators to protect their health.36

Your health effects will depend upon your exposure, the type of fungus, toxins produced by the fungus and your current health. That said, some of the more common health problems associated with mold exposure include:37,38

Muscle and joint painHeadachesAnxiety
DepressionMemory lossVisual disturbance
Immune disturbancesFatigueGI problems
Respiratory problemsShortness of breathVascular fragility resulting in hemorrhage
DiarrheaLiver damageBleeding from the lungs
Loss of coordinationKidney toxicityPhotosensitivity
ImmunosuppressionSkin rashesInfertility
NosebleedsNasal and sinus congestionUpper respiratory infections

Addressing Mold-Related Disease

Unfortunately, there is no precise formula for rebuilding perfect health after being damaged by mold or its toxins. No one set of interventions will work for everyone. Diagnosis begins with a series of diagnostic blood tests that are readily available by commercial labs such as LabCorp and Quest.

You will find more information about these tests in my previous article on strategies to identify inflammation caused by mold exposure, featuring an interview with Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker, medical director for the Center for Research on Biotoxin Associated Illnesses. I also discuss helpful tests and diagnostic tools in "Mold: The Common Toxin That Can Be Far More Damaging Than Heavy Metals."

The results of these tests will guide the treatment, which will ultimately depend on the type of mold you were exposed to, length of exposure, your overall health, medications, allergies, genetics and other factors. Your best approach is to find a well-informed physician with expertise in environmental medicine. Together you can devise an appropriate treatment plan. Jack Dwayne Thrasher, Ph.D., another mold expert, listed physicians with experience in treating mold-associated disease on DrThrasher.org.

That said, here's a sampling of treatments found to be helpful. It's also well worth noting that some of the most commonly used conventional treatments for mold-related symptoms — steroids, antibiotics and antifungal drugs — are typically ill-advised and can make the situation far worse rather than better. For this reason, should you suspect mold as a culprit, make sure you find a doctor who is well-versed in mold treatment.

Avoid all sugars and other mold-sensitive foods39

Eliminating sugars, grain-based foods, anything made from refined white flour, packed and processed foods of all kinds, simple carbohydrates, milk and most fruit, will help starve the mold, as fungi thrive on a diet high in fructose, sucrose (table sugar), lactose (milk sugar) and other sugars.

Other foods to be avoided due to their high rate of mold contamination include alcohol, peanuts, cottonseed oil, corn, most grains (especially wheat, rye, barley, sorghum) and hard cheeses.

Pancreatic enzymes

The late Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez,40 featured in Somer's book, "TOX-SICK," treated mold exposure using pancreatic enzymes, taken away from meals. The reason for this is because pancreatic enzymes eat debris, and mold qualifies as a food source for these enzymes.

Taken in conjunction with food, the enzymes help digest your food. But when taken an hour before or after your meal, the enzymes start looking for something to digest, and will gobble up any mold it comes across. It's not a quick fix, but over time will help rid your body of mold lodged in your gastrointestinal tract.

Fermented foods and/or a high-quality probiotic

Probably the most important supplement for recovering from mold-induced illness is a good probiotic. Your gastrointestinal tract is your first line of defense against mold and its toxins, and having a GI tract populated with beneficial flora is crucial for optimal immune function. Probiotics help repopulate your GI tract with these beneficial bacteria.

The "good" bacteria help keep the "bad" bacteria (and other organisms like mold and yeast) in check. This is why antibiotics are so counterproductive if you have a fungal infection. Without the proper microflora, fungi and their toxins can break through the walls of your intestinal tract and enter your bloodstream.

When your bowel is toxic, the rest of your body soon follows. Sensing this toxicity, your immune system reacts with a vengeance, trying desperately to overcome this perceived assault, which results in systemic inflammation. And when your blood is full of toxins, your organs responsible for cleansing it (liver, kidneys, skin, lymph) become overloaded and multisystem health problems can occur, which is what many people experience after mold poisoning.

Cholestyramine (CSM)

CSM is a rarely used cholesterol drug that binds very effectively to small, negatively charged molecules with anion rings. When CSM binds to the toxin, it prevents it from being reabsorbed.

This treatment is part of a more comprehensive treatment devised by Shoemaker, who claims 75 percent of patients experience a 75 percent reduction of mold-toxicity symptoms with cholestyramine alone (less if there is ongoing mold exposure). Bentonite clay is another binder that can help eliminate toxins of different kinds.

Organic coffee enemas

Coffee enemas help detoxify your liver. Please note, however that conventional coffee should NOT be used for enemas. The coffee MUST be organic, naturally caffeinated coffee, and were you to do this at home, you'd also want to use unbleached filters to avoid introducing toxins into your colon.

You can also find organic coffees online that are specifically processed for use as enemas. Most of these you simply boil and strain rather than putting through a coffee maker.

Herbal remedies

A study published in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry found extract of artichoke leaf was toxic to many types of fungi, including both molds and yeasts. Other helpful antifungal herbal remedies include berberine, oregano and garlic.41

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 Geoscience Frontiers, 2015; 6(6):817
  • 2 The Verge, August 29, 2017
  • 3, 6, 17 Star Tribune, August 31, 2017
  • 4 New York Times, October 7, 2016
  • 5 Vox, August 31, 2017
  • 7, 8 Slate, August 27, 2017
  • 9 Time, August 26, 2017
  • 10 Dallas News, August 31, 2017
  • 11, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22, 32, 33 Washington Post, September 1, 2017
  • 12 Automotive Mobility Solutions, March 23, 2011
  • 13 The Guardian, August 31, 2017
  • 14 NPR, August 29, 2017
  • 16 American Journal of Public Health, 2012;102(10):1957
  • 18 Huffington Post, August 28, 2017
  • 23 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Water Safety After a Flood
  • 24 Stat News, August 29, 2017
  • 25, 27 Medical News Today, February 23, 2017
  • 26 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tetanus Symptoms and Complications
  • 28, 29 Grist, August 28, 2017
  • 30 Environmental Integrity Project
  • 31 CNBC, August 27, 2017
  • 34 The Atlantic, August 30, 2017
  • 35 Environmental Protection Agency, Mold and Health
  • 36 Environmental Health Perspectives, 2006;114(12):1883
  • 37 University of Minnesota, Environmental Health Sciences
  • 38 North Dakota State University Fargo, Mold Health Effects
  • 39, 41 Environmental Illness Resource May 5, 2016
  • 40 Nicholas Gonzalez Foundation