The visible and hidden dangers of floodwater

You’ve seen the pictures on TV: flood victims wading through the water, children jumping into the floodwater to cool off, and debris floating down the river. Flood water contains visible and hidden dangers. What are they?

1. Fast current. Minneapolis MN, on their website, says that just six inches of fast moving water can topple you. Two feet of fast-moving water can wash away cars. The current may be moving faster than it appears. Young children, the elderly and the disabled are vulnerable to swift currents.

2. Toxic chemicals. The chemicals in floodwater depend on the location. In agricultural areas, the water may contain animal feces, fertilizers, and pesticides. According to the CDC, floodwater may also contain battery acid. OSHA advises that flood water may also contain gasoline, spills from toxic waste sites, and manufacturing chemicals.

3. Dead and live animals. Floodwater kills livestock (cows, pigs, sheep, poultry) and family pets. Dark, murky water may also contain live snakes and rats that are dangerous to humans.

4. Electrical risks. According to OSHA, flood water can be charged with electricity from underground or downed power lines. Victims should not return to their homes until the power is turned off.

6. Hazardous debris. Runoff floodwater can contain railroad ties, trees, tree limbs, household propane tanks, gas grill tanks, furniture, children’s games/toys, and even houses. This heavy debris can cause serious injuries.

7. Infectious organisms. The US Department of Labor says that floodwater may contain E. Coli, Salmonella, Shigella, hepatitis A virus and typhoid fever. Flood water also attracts mosquitoes. “Standing pools of water become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, increasing the risk of contracting West Nile virus and encephalitis,” according to the West Virginia University Extension Service.

Although most floods don’t cause serious disease outbreaks, it’s best to be prepared. These tips will help protect you from the dangers of flooding.

* Get a tetanus shot or booster.

* Wear rubber boots and gloves.

* Protect your eyes with goggles and your lungs with a mask.

* Use insect repellent.

* Cover your arms and legs.

* Drink bottled water from safe bottling plants.

* If potable water is not available, disinfect water with a solution of five drops of household bleach to one gallon of water.

* Rinse water storage containers with a bleach solution.

* Wash your hands with disinfected water and soap.

* Clean open sores and cuts with alcohol.

* Discard all contaminated food, including dented cans.

The best way to deal with a flood disaster is to prepare for it. For more information, go to the American Red Cross website and print the “Disaster Supply Kit.”


– American Red Cross, “Disaster Supply Kit”

– American Red Cross, “Fixing Your Flooded Home”

– Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “After a Flood”

– City of Minneapolis, “Flood Safety”

– Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), “Flood Cleanup”

– West Virginia University Extension Service, “How to Protect Yourself When Cleaning Up After a Flood”

Copyright 2008 by Harriet Hodgson

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