Public Health Threats Linger In The Wake Of Hurricane Sandy

Shopping carts full of contaminated food damaged by Sandy in New York City

Americans across the East Coast are slowly recovering from the widespread destruction that Hurricane Sandy wreaked earlier this week. But in addition to the infrastructure that still needs to be rebuilt and the public transportation systems that aren’t yet back up and running, Sandy has left another consequence in its wake: potentially dangerous threats to public health.

Although initial concerns that the rats that survived Sandy could spread infectious diseases in New York City may be overblown, public health officials are still warning Americans to be mindful of potential hazards in the water and the air. NPR lays out the most relevant threats for Americans in the areas that have been devastated by the so-called “superstorm”:

— Contaminated flood water. The state epidemiologist for the New Jersey Department of Health, Tina Tan, told NPR that since floodwaters can be somewhat of a toxic stew in the aftermath of storms, Americans should avoid coming into contact with the potentially hazardous water. “Floodwaters potentially could contain mixtures of a variety of chemicals such as pesticides, paint, gasoline, you know other things for example that you might store in your garage or your basement that might actually get all flooded out,” Tan said.

— Compromised sewage treatment plants. In the places where sewage treatment plants are no longer working after fires or flooding, bacteria and pathogens pose more of a risk to Americans. People may become sick with symptoms associated with gastrointestinal illnesses, like vomiting and nausea.

— Unsafe drinking water. Public health officials are recommending that Americans boil their drinking water for at least a minute before consuming it, in case water sources have been compromised. Fortunately, since New York City water sources are mostly located outside of the city, the downtown Manhattan residents who are still recovering from significant damage from the storm shouldn’t have to worry.

— Carbon monoxide poisoning. Many Americans are using back-up generators in the wake of massive power outages, but generators can pose serious risks to the public if they’re not used correctly. Without the proper ventilation, they can cause dangerous levels of carbon monoxide in the air, which has killed Americans in the wake of past natural disasters.

— Food poisoning. Americans without power may end up eating spoiled food that they have no way of refrigerating. The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told NPR that cities typically see a sharp increase in the number of foodborne illnesses among residents after a blackout.

— Mold growing in flooded homes. Once flood waters recede, mold on building structures could cause asthma and allergy issues for the residents who continue to live there.

And in addition to widespread public health risks in the aftermath of the storm, several hospital facilities have also been compromised by Hurricane Sandy, forcing medical officials to scramble to find alternate locations to treat patients who require critical care. NYU Langone Medical Center was forced to evacuate its patients on Monday night after the facility flooded and lost power, and Bellevue Hospital Center evacuated yesterday after its backup power generators failed. The president of the Health and Hospitals Corporation told the New York Times that hospitals like Bellevue have been facing “third world conditions” in Sandy’s wake, with no hot water, no flushing toilets, and no lab or radiology services.


The Hill reports that the Obama administration has declared a public health emergency for New York and will dispatch additional medical professionals to the area to aid hurricane victims. The official state of emergency will allow Health and Human Services to waive some rules for Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP beneficiaries to help prevent Americans from experiencing interrupted coverage.

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