Friday, September 01, 2017

Harvey Aftermath:  A Public Health Crisis in the Making

From water contamination to diseases to mold in the walls, dangers continue long after the hurricane.  These risks are related to climate change.

Matthew Koser looks for heirlooms in his grandfather's flooded house after Hurricane Harvey deluged the Houston area this week. (Credit: Erich Schlegel/Getty) Click to Enlarge.
The Gulf Coast faces an evolving public health crisis in the wake of Hurricane Harvey that's likely to unfold over months or even years.  Health officials are concerned about everything from immediate injuries and exposure to germs and toxic chemicals to more insidious and long-term threats, including mold in the walls of flooded homes and mental health problems.

Many of those public health concerns match what experts have been warning we'll see more of as climate change brings more severe weather.
"You have to worry about immediate effects like drowning, you have chemical exposures from the refineries around Houston, as well as chemicals from households," said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College.  "You also have to worry about infectious diseases."

Chris Van Deusen, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said it's too soon to know if bacterial diseases are spreading in the floodwater.  But in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported clusters of Staphylococcus aureus and Vibrio vulnificus—two skin infections—as well as diarrheal diseases and vomiting among evacuees.

The next concern, Van Deusen said, comes as people collect in shelters.  "Shelter operations are going to be going on for an extended period of time," he said.  "Anytime you have that many people in close proximity, you're at risk for communicable disease."
The waters may prove to be particularly dangerous in Southeast Texas, a center of the nation's oil refining and petrochemical infrastructure.
Elena Craft, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, said the incidents revealed poor planning on the part of the region's petrochemical infrastructure and the need to rebuild to a higher standard for larger storms.  "The reality is these are happening more regularly and they're larger in magnitude," she said.  "We can't keep doing our disaster management using the same information we have been for years."
Flooding, Sewage Threaten Drinking Water
Then there's the threat of failing sewage systems contaminating not only floodwaters, but drinking water too.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was reporting:
  • 21 inoperable wastewater systems.
  • 52 inoperable public water systems, serving at least 115,000 people.
  • 18 wastewater and sanitary sewer overflows, including in the City of Corpus Christi and at Shell's Deer Park manufacturing complex.
  • 184 active boil-water notices covering at least 189,000 people.
A national Climate and Health Assessment published last year by the U.S. Global Change Research Program said that climate change presents a "significant threat" to Americans' health, with the effects already showing.  One of the top concerns, the report said, is more frequent severe weather events, which it said killed more than 5,000 people from 2004-2013.

Already, the report said, "the intensity, frequency, and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes, as well as the frequency of the strongest hurricanes, have all increased since the 1980s."
What About Mosquitos and Disease?
One emerging area of concern, where climate change may play an additional role, is the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses.

Scientists are continuing to study the impact of hurricanes on mosquito populations, but one study of areas hit by Katrina found that incidence of West Nile Virus initially dipped in the weeks after the storm, but then surged over the next year.  "In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, it looks like the floodwaters washed away a lot of mosquito breeding sites," Hotez said.  But along the Gulf Coast, transmission can extend well into the fall, he said, and as floodwaters receded, the cases began to rise.

Since 2005, however, Texas has seen the introduction of several new diseases carried by mosquitos, including Dengue fever, Chikungunya virus and, most recently, Zika virus, though there's no known active transmission in the area right now.

Read more at Harvey Aftermath:  A Public Health Crisis in the Making

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