Bayou City

Harvey's Floodwaters Contaminated With Nasty, Dangerous Bacteria

Houston floodwaters contain a toxic mix of bacteria.
Houston floodwaters contain a toxic mix of bacteria. Photo by Brandon Navarro
Updated, Thursday, 8:30 a.m.: Floodwater from Hurricane Harvey has receded from much of Houston, but for those in areas still swamped, like west Houston, contaminated water carrying bacteria and potentially infectious diseases can be just as deadly.

Doctors from the Infectious Diseases Society of America sent out warnings to local media as the initial downpours hammered the Texas coast with 19 trillion gallons of water, listing mosquito-borne viruses like West Nile and Zika as potential threats, as well as water contaminated by animal and human waste. Floodwater samples collected in Cypress by Texas A&M showed water with E. coli – the bacteria found in the digestive tract of humans and animals – at levels 125 times higher than what is considered safe for swimming. Even wading in such water could be considered dangerous, according to Terry Gentry, an associate professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Texas A&M.

Plus, with about 4,300 people still in the city’s two mega shelters – the George R. Brown Convention Center and the NRG Center — the risk of disease spreading remains high.

“The message we need to put out is there is a risk of infection and you need to keep an eye out for yourself,” said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, a professor of infectious diseases with the University of Texas Health Science Center of Houston and a fellow of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

With mass flooding, fecal matter, urine and fluids from dead animals quickly pollute floodwater, said Ostrosky. Risk for illnesses like Legionnaires' diseases and leptospirosis, both of which are caused by ingesting bacteria, as well as exposure to nasty diarrhea-inducing germs, is possible. But more immediate concerns are for those with cuts and abrasions. Residents escaping flooding, emergency rescue workers and anyone in contact with floodwater should clean themselves immediately after exposure and use disinfectant on any wounds. People who have injuries displaying excessive redness, swelling or puffiness should seek medical advice immediately.

One rumor Ostrosky has seen circulating online is that people dealing with floodwater should take preventative doses of antibiotics beforehand. He stressed that the Infectious Diseases Society discourages that strategy and said unnecessary applications of antibiotics can lead to other side effects, like a weakened potency for those same drugs later on.

For those with cuts or scrapes who came into contact with floodwater, or people who just need to update their shots, three Houston-area FastMed Urgent Cares are offering free tetanus shot boosters from Thursday through Sunday. If you haven't received a tetanus booster in the last 10 years, have a dirty wound and not received a booster in the last five years or have touched floodwaters with cuts, burns, scrapes or animals bites, FastMed is urging you to receive a booster. Those seeking boosters can visit FastMed locations in Tomball at 14080 FM 2920, Humble at 3832 Atascocita and in Houston at 4805 Highway 6 North.

Ostrosky said large outbreaks of mosquito-borne viruses are less likely in the United States, but with massive amounts of standing water, precautions like wearing long sleeves and applying insect repellent should be used in and around floodwaters. The Texas Department of State Health Services recorded 75 cases of Zika in Harris County last year, with only five so far in 2017 — but that was before Harvey.

As of now, Houston’s clean water supply has been not been affected. The same A&M team that tested floodwaters for E. coli found tap water was fine for ingestion, and only a few districts in Harris County have received boil-water notices.

Essentially, Ostrosky said, residents should be smart. Many of these problems can be avoided by using common sense. That should be enough to handle the natural contaminants, even if more pollutants could be on the way.
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Joseph Fanelli is a reporting fellow at the Houston Press with an interest in education, crime and eccentric people everywhere.