As the Eastern Seaboard recovers from Hurricane Sandy, states and local communities are working to clean up the mess left by the superstorm. It isn't just a matter of aesthetics, but one of public health.
Even after the initial fury of the storm has passed, Sandy's lingering health effects could be felt for months and longer.
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Flooding always carries the danger of sewage-tainted overflow, which can cause digestive disorders, rashes and infections. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita, scientists found that species of bacteria from the Vibrio family, often responsible for cholera, were abundant in Lake Pontchartrain shortly after floodwaters receded, though there was no long-term bloom. Many construction workers working in hurricane-devastated parts of New Orleans also experienced skin disorders as a result of mites that multiplied in flooded buildings.
Sewage can even cause respiratory problems if it dries and becomes airborne particles. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recommends keeping children, pets, and people with compromised immune systems away from contaminated areas until they have been cleaned and disinfected.
Most fabrics can be disinfected by laundering with detergent or dry cleaning. Leather shoes are the exception, according to health officials.
To prevent mold growth in the home, health officials recommend drying the affected areas quickly, using fans if possible and opening windows to allow fresh air in. For enclosed spaces, you may need a dehumidifier to dry the area out.
Standing water, and the disease-causing bugs that breed there, will likely make many buildings in New York City a health threat.
"Some of the disease-producing organisms would probably survive for quite a while,” a University of Iowa environmental microbiologist told National Geographic.
It's not just microorganisms that hurricane survivors might have to worry about. With much of New York City's subway system flooded by Sandy's storm surge, there's some question of what the disaster's effect will be on the native rat population.
Rats that escaped to higher ground are no doubt doing well, with a smorgasbord of garbage and rotted food to sate them in flood-affected areas. Rats can squeeze into holes as small as half an inch wide – the breadth of their skulls – so New Yorkers may want to make sure even tiny holes in their buildings are stopped up.
However, speculations about "ratpocalypse" descending on the Big Apple might be a bit premature. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene spokesman Sam Miller says there hasn't been any evidence of a significant increase in above-ground rats. Actually, Sandy may actually turn out to be a super-effective exterminator.
"Flooding often displaces rats but also drowns young rats in their burrows and that can reduce the rat population," Miller told New York magazine.
Sandy victims that are still coping without power should also take care to avoid injury.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene warns against using portable generators improperly, which can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. To avoid this "silent killer," people should follow their generator's manufacturers' instructions and avoid placing the generator too close to the home, bedroom window, or inside an enclosed space like a garage.
In a similar vein, people without power should resist the temptation to use stove burners or ovens to heat their homes. This can also carry the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Unfortunately, if you are still left in the dark thanks to Sandy, your best bet is bundling up with extra layers of clothing.