Hurricane Sandy Leads to Lingering Health Concerns

Daniel Weiss, Senior Editor
Published Online: Friday, November 2, 2012
Along with dozens of deaths, tremendous property damage, and loss of power for millions, the massive storm has left behind a slew of health risks.

Hurricane Sandy has taken a tremendous toll in terms of loss of life and property damage. As of Thursday, November 1, 2012, the massive storm had been blamed for 95 deaths in the United States and Canada, including 40 deaths in New York City alone. In addition, for the millions of people throughout the Northeast who have experienced power outages and flooding as a result of the storm, a number of health hazards remain.
 
Toxic Floodwaters
In areas that are still flooded, floodwaters pose the most immediate health threat. As a report from NPR explains, these waters can be filled with toxic substances, including sewage, pesticides, paint, and gasoline. Fetid floodwater can be particularly hazardous to babies, the elderly, and those who are already sick. Everyone should avoid contact with floodwater, but those who must come into contact with it should wear protective gear, such as boots, gloves, and goggles.
 
Medical Conditions
In an online article in Forbes, Robert Glattner, MD, an emergency physician on staff at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, describes some of the consequences of the storm for patients with preexisting medical conditions. Many patients will be short on vital medications due to their inability to refill prescriptions or due to medications that have been lost or destroyed in the tumult of the storm. Power outages may have rendered medications that require refrigeration, such as insulin, unusable. Patients who have experienced falls during the storm may have put off seeking medical care leading to complications and heightened risk of infection, sepsis, compartment syndrome, and rhabdomyolysis. In addition, those who have been stuck in their homes may be at risk of dehydration and infection.
 
Food Poisoning
Once the power goes out, food in the refrigerator or freezer begins to slowly spoil. Food in the refrigerator generally stays cold for about 4 to 6 hours without power, while food in the freezer is generally safe to eat for 24 to 48 hours without power. After these time limits, food should be thrown out.
 
Generators and Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Extreme caution should be exercised when using generators to provide backup power during outages. They must be used outdoors, away from windows, and in a well-ventilated area to prevent the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. (Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that can cause asphyxiation and death if inhaled.) As of Friday, November 2, 2012, at least 5 deaths in New Jersey alone had been attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning associated with use of generators in the aftermath of the storm.
 
A warning from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regarding generators reads as follows (emphasis in original): “NEVER use a generator inside homes, garages, crawlspaces, sheds, or similar areas, even when using fans or opening doors and windows for ventilation. Deadly levels of carbon monoxide can quickly build up in these areas and can linger for hours, even after the generator has shut off.”
 
Mold
Houses and buildings that have been flooded are prone to mold growth, which can pose a significant health risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those with asthma, allergies, or other breathing conditions are most sensitive to mold, while those with immune suppression are at heightened risk of developing mold infections. Common symptoms of a reaction to mold include stuffy nose, irritated eyes, wheezing, shortness of breath, and skin irritation.
 
To prevent mold growth, it is important to clean and dry a building within 24 to 48 hours of flooding. All wet items and surfaces should be cleaned with detergent and water and then dried. All porous items that have been wet for more than 48 hours and cannot be thoroughly cleaned and dried should be removed. (Such items may include carpeting, carpet padding, upholstery, wallpaper, drywall, floor and ceiling tiles, insulation material, clothing, leather, paper, wood, and food.)

Role of Pharmacy
Pharmacies throughout the affected area are working to serve customers while struggling with flooding, power outages, and property damage. To find a pharmacy in their area that is open, pharmacy customers can go to Rx Response, a website launched after Hurricane Katrina by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America in cooperation with organizations such as the National Community Pharmacists Association, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, and the Generic Pharmaceutical Association.

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