Dr. Campbell: Health concerns after a flood

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Hurricane Matthew brought catastrophic flooding to North Carolina this weekend.

Now, as we begin to recover, many are left without power and many communities are inundated with flood waters. Food may be spoiled and much of the waters that are entering our communities may not be safe.

1. What are the top concerns with regards to food safety after a flood?

A flood or the loss of power due to storms could jeopardize the safety of your food. Knowing how to determine if food is safe and how to keep food safe will help minimize the potential loss of food and reduce the risk of foodborne illness.

Consuming dangerous foodborne bacteria will usually cause illness within one to three days of eating the contaminated food. However, sickness can also occur within 20 minutes or up to six weeks later.

Although most people will recover from a foodborne illness within a short period of time, some can develop chronic, severe, or even life-threatening health problems.

Foodborne illness can sometimes be confused with other illnesses that have similar symptoms. The symptoms of foodborne illness can include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache and body ache

2. What should you do to avoid any food borne illnesses during this time?

First of all, always keep meat, poultry, fish, and eggs refrigerated at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and frozen food at or below zero degrees Fahrenheit. This may be difficult when the power is out.

Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature. The refrigerator will keep food safely cold for about 4 hours if it is unopened. A full freezer will hold the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full) if the door remains closed.

Obtain dry or block ice to keep your refrigerator as cold as possible if the power is going to be out for a prolonged period of time. Use 2.5 to 3 pounds of dry ice per cubic foot in your freezer; 50 pounds of dry ice should hold an 18‐cubic foot full freezer for two days.

Many food items are unsafe once they come in contact with flood water. If the food has come in contact with flood waters here is what you must do:

  • Do not eat food that is contaminated with flood water
  • Throw away any food in damaged containers or cans
  • Thoroughly wash pots and pans
  • Thoroughly wash countertops

Do not eat any food that may have come into contact with flood water – this would include raw fruits and vegetables, cartons of milk or eggs.

Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container. Food containers that are not waterproof include those packaged in plastic wrap or cardboard, or those with screw‐caps, snap lids, pull tops, and crimped caps.

Flood waters can enter into any of these containers and contaminate the food inside. Also, discard cardboard juice/milk/baby formula boxes and home canned foods if they have come in contact with flood water, because they cannot be effectively cleaned and sanitized.

Inspect canned foods and discard any food in damaged cans. Can damage is shown by swelling, leakage, punctures, holes, fractures, extensive deep rusting, or crushing/denting severe enough to prevent normal stacking or opening with a manual, wheel‐type can opener.

When in doubt, throw it away.

3. What about drinking water?

If you have been flooded do not use tap water, use bottled water instead. Boil water advisories may also be in effect. If you have a well, it should be tested after flood waters recede prior to drinking or using the water for any consumable purpose.

4. What about the flood waters—beyond the obvious, what other dangers do they pose?

If your garden was flooded with water from a stream or river, can you still harvest the produce? Do not attempt to harvest any items from a garden flooded with water from a river or stream. This includes tomatoes or peppers, but also potatoes and carrots. Flood waters can bring with them harmful microorganisms, chemicals and other contaminants that can make food unsafe. Some of these contaminants may not be removed or destroyed with peeling or cooking. It is best to throw produce from a flooded garden away.

  • When returning to your home after a flooding emergency, be aware that flood water may contain sewage and other dangerous microorganisms.
  • Keep children and pets out of the affected area until cleanup has been completed.
  • Wear rubber boots, rubber gloves, and goggles during cleanup of affected area.
  • Have your onsite waste-water system professionally inspected and serviced if you suspect damage.
  • Wash all clothes worn during the cleanup in hot water and detergent. These clothes should be washed separately from uncontaminated clothes and linens.
  • After completing the cleanup, wash your hands with soap and warm water. Use water that has been boiled for 1 minute (allow the water to cool before washing your hands).

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