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The Health Dangers of Sandy

From electrocution to infectious diseases, damage to the East Coast goes beyond structural destruction.

| November 5th, 2012
Courtesy of May S. Young on Flickr (CC Licensed)
Flooded streets post Hurricane Sandy

The $50 billion worth of devastation that Superstorm Sandy brought ashore last week may just be the beginning in terms of damage to the East Coast.

Massive flooding, millions without power and widespread displacement (up to 40,000 people in New York City alone need a new place to live), among other damage, could have sweeping consequences to people’s health, both physical and mental, in the days and months to come.

Immediate Concerns

Toxic water

In the aftermath of Sandy, hundreds of pictures surfaced on the web of residents wading through flooded streets. The problem is: You don’t need to ingest dirty water to be hurt by it. Any cuts or wounds can act as a pathway for pathogens into your body. According to reports, heavy storm water and tidal surges from Superstorm Sandy maxed out many of the region’s sewer systems, causing untreated human waste to be discharged into flooded coastal areas like Hoboken, New Jersey and lower Manhattan.

MORE: When Mother Nature Wreaks Havoc on Beauty

Add that to contaminants like oil leaking from swamped vehicles, fertilizers swept from lawns and chemicals washed from shoreline industrial sites, and the waters slowly receding from East Coast towns are a dangerous toxic mixture. Contact with the water—as well as with the coating of pathogens and chemicals that will be left behind months after the area dries out—can cause symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, fever and headaches.

Electricity

Electrical wires submerged in water can send pulses of energy through the flooded areas, leaving residents in danger of electrocution. When toxins are also in the mix, the possibility of a hazardous fire jumps. Loose cables brought down by trees and debris can also cause deadly shocks. Without electricity, many people resort to using multiple candles, which raises the possibility of fire, no matter how careful people think they’re being.

Food Poisoning

Hundreds of thousands of homes are still without power a week after Sandy hit, meaning that groceries sit rotting in warming refrigerators and freezers. It can be tempting to think that some of the food looks fine, especially for those stranded without access to new food, but public health officials warn that if you lose power for more than four hours (or two days for your frozen things), you’ll likely have to throw away almost everything in your fridge. Cooking or reheating the food won’t help either. Also, many small stores that were flooded and without power probably didn’t have generators keeping the food cold, so be careful what you buy.

Falling Temps

According to the National Weather Service, parts of the East Coast will experience rapidly cooling temperatures this week, dropping into the 30s at night. The forecast presents a major problem for the more than one million people without electricity and heat. NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg even urged residents without power to leave their homes and find a “warm place” to stay. The problem is only expected to get worse as we get further into November.

Down the Road

Rats

The bane of most urban commuters, the millions of rats that live in subway systems have likely fled the waterlogged tunnels, carrying with them to surface level infectious diseases like as leptospirosis, hantavirus, typhus, salmonella and even the plague. Yes, the plague.

“There are particles of these pathogens that rats are excreting all the time,” disease ecologist Richard Ostfeld told the Huffington Post last week. “They’re sloppy creatures, as we all know. They can contaminate the environment, our food supply and even the air that we breathe.”

MORE: Sneaky Spots Teeming with Germs

Mold Left Behind

When the floodwater recedes, previously submerged houses will be inundated by mold, which is time consuming and costly to clean up. Mold can trigger or worsen asthma and allergies, or even produce toxins that can cause unique health conditions like bleeding in the lungs.

Emotional Fallout

According to decades of research, the stresses of losing homes, loved ones, and being displaced by natural disasters can have widespread and long-lasting mental health consequences. After Hurricane Katrina, 17 percent of New Orleans residents suffered from symptoms of mental illness, like the nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia and hypervigilance that accompany post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Over time, mood disorders like anxiety and depression can take root. However, researchers told the New York Times that the ease with which those affected receive support plays a major role in how a community will fare psychologically. With what they’ve seen so far, they are optimistic about the East Coast’s psyche during the months that will follow Superstorm Sandy.

One of the best ways to move forward during Sandy's aftermath is by getting active. Even the most affected will feel better by getting involved with what's going on around them. “My foremost recommendation at this juncture is that the more proactive you can be—even if it’s helping somebody else—the better you’ll feel,” explains Dennis S. Charney M.D., at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, a researcher in the field of human resilience. “Hospitals are evacuating, people are in shelters, so opportunities abound for you to get involved.”

QUIZ: Measure Your Stress Levels 

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