Flood Water Poses Low Health Risk

Fears that filthy water from Britain’s floods could trigger a health crisis are largely unfounded, experts say. Flood water may contain dangerous bacteria like cholera from mixing with raw human sewage, but this is unlikely to trigger disease outbreaks, they say.

The government’s Health Protection Agency is advising people to avoid direct contact with the flood water as a precautionary measure. Over 340,000 people in Gloucestershire remain without tap water.

Professor Ian Cluckie, scientist and chairman of the government-funded Flood Risk Management Research Consortium, said: “For God’s sake, don’t let children walk around in it. “In urban areas there is a chance of untreated human sewage being mixed in with the water. It can cause dysenteries and even cholera. People need to realise this is raw sewage they are walking in.”

Professor Kevin G Kerr, consultant Microbiologist at Harrogate District Hospital said: “Some areas of the world experience serious outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and typhoid after major flooding.

“But large-scale outbreaks of infection would be very unlikely in the UK, partly because these diseases are very rare in this country but mainly because water companies are able to provide clean drinking water – either bottled or from bowsers – to people without tap water.”

Dr Ken Flint, a microbiologist at the University of Warwick, said: “As long as people don’t drink the flood water they won’t get a water borne disease.”

And environmental microbiologist Dr Keith Jones, from Lancaster University, said: “Despite the dire warnings about outbreaks of disease following flooding, they rarely happen. “Although there is the potential for an increase in enteric disease after flooding, if you follow the advice given by the Environment Agency and the Environmental Health Officers, you should be safe.”

Indeed, no disease outbreaks were reported in the flooded areas of the US affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And there is no evidence from previous UK floods, such as Carlisle and Lewes, that bugs in the water caused an increase in gastro-intestinal illness and enhanced surveillance by the Health Protection Agency has not detected increased reports of infection in areas that are currently affect flooding either.

Experts say there is no risk from more serious infections such as typhoid and cholera in the flood water because these diseases are not present in the general population in the UK. Although harmful micro-organisms in flood water are very diluted and present a low risk, there are precautions to be aware of however.

  • The very young are particularly susceptible to water-borne diseases and dehydration. Infant formula milk needs to be made with very clean water – bowser, or bottled, water brought to a boil and allowed to cool for no more than 30 minutes in a clean covered container.
  • Parents are also being told not to allow children to play in flood-water areas and wash children’s hands frequently and always before meals.
  • Wash floodwater-contaminated toys with hot water or disinfect before allowing them to be used.
  • Always wash your hands with soap and clean water after going to the toilet, before eating or preparing food, after being in contact with flood water, sewage or items that have been contaminated by these, or participating in flood cleanup activities.
  • Rats can move into homes following flooding, but are generally wary of humans. Avoid approaching or cornering rats and encourage them to leave. If you are bitten seek medical advice.
  • Keep any open cuts or sores clean and prevent them being exposed to flood water. Wear waterproof plasters.
  • Tap water or bowser water should never be used for cleaning or storing contact lenses since this may cause a rare but serious eye infection.

The Health Protection Agency advises: “If you feel unwell this does not necessarily mean that you are suffering from any infection. If you are concerned, visit your own doctor.” It said the biggest health risk from the flooding was likely to be mental stress.

A spokeswoman said: “This has been a devastating event. It is very physically and emotionally draining to deal with.” They also alerted people returning to their homes in flood-hit areas to the potential danger of carbon monoxide poisoning from the use of indoors portable generators, camping stoves or other gasoline, propane or natural gas devices that are meant for outdoor use.