Image: Houses and businesses are surrounded by flood waters
Eric Thayer  /  Reuters
Houses and businesses are surrounded by floodwaters in the town of Louisiana, Mo. Standing water like this is the ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes and dangerous bacteria.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
updated 6/20/2008 6:55:30 PM ET 2008-06-20T22:55:30

Now that the waters are beginning to recede after this month’s devastating floods in the Midwest, state and federal officials are warning of a widespread secondary risk from dangerous bacteria and disease-bearing mosquitoes.

Officials of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health officials across the Midwest said they expected this season’s mosquito population to be especially big, nurtured by hot summer temperatures and large pools of standing water that make an ideal breeding ground.

“We know we have mosquitoes right now in the state that are testing positive for the West Nile virus,” Indiana State Health Commissioner Judy Monroe said.

Indiana health officials have already found two mosquitoes infected with West Nile in Marion County, and they said they expected to see more, because smaller counties with smaller budgets haven’t had the manpower to go looking for them yet.

“The places that they’re going to have trouble with most likely is when the waters actually recede and the water gets trapped in grassy areas, in grassy fields, when it’s not actually flowing,” said Justin Manning, supervisor of rodent control for the Vanderburgh County Health Department.

Chuck Cipperley, director of environmental services for the Siouxland District Health Department in Iowa, said the Sioux City area was covered in mosquito-friendly pools of water.

“We have had a lot of water, and there is a lot of breeding ground all around us,” Cipperley said.

It’s bad news for mother like Tricia Massart of Elm Grove, Wis., whose children had been waiting for summer to start.

“The summer here is so short, and everyone just waits for summer to come, and they want to get outside and enjoy it,” Massart said. “I think if the mosquitoes try to ruin it, that would be very unfortunate.”

E. coli, tetanus feared
Stagnant water carries numerous other risks, health officials said. For any number of dangerous bacteria and parasites, hot, fetid pools left over by swamped septic systems are the perfect home.

“What you see in floodwaters are the same kind of organisms that normally exist in a community,” said Rosie Kapp, a specialist with the Rosie Kapp, a specialist with the Waukesha (Wis.) County Department of Public Health.

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E. coli is a bacteria that could be there,” Kapp said. “There’s also parasites that could be in the water, such as giardia or cryptosporidosis.”

The danger comes when the water “splashes in the eyes, the mouth — your hands are contaminated,” she said.

Jennifer Dunlap, a spokeswoman for Indiana Health Department, said it would also take only a small cut or scratch to expose someone to tetanus, an acute, often fatal, disease. Counties have been administering tetanus vaccinations and handing out water testing kits across Indiana and other Midwestern states.

The raging waters also seeped into countless wells, affecting drinking water for thousands of homes and businesses across the region.

The Studio Café in downtown Thiensville, Wis., was forced to shut its doors permanently because its well water tested positive for E. coli.

“They put a boil advisory on us, and since we are a coffee shop, we use a lot of water here,” said owner Julie Burton. “For the customers’ health, we couldn’t justify being open, so we had to close.”

Hazardous materials can leach into floodwaters
The problem is most especially acute around facilities where hazardous materials are handled and stored. Like wells and septic tanks, such containers can be breached, spilling their contents into spreading floodwaters.

Hazardous materials crews were called to Black Hawk Park in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Wednesday after it was discovered that about 15 gallons of 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid — or 245-T, a powerful herbicide commonly found in the defoliant Agent Orange — had spilled in side a maintenance building. The Cedar River had flooded the building, and some of the chemical leaked out.

Slideshow: Facing the floodwaters

Vern Fish, director of the Black Hawk County Conservation Board, said the spill was small enough that it was likely to have been diluted to such a point that it was not a threat to people. But “we felt we should err on the side of safety. Rather than just send people in, we had a haz-mat team come in, got a professional evaluation done, and now we’ve got a better understanding of the situation.”

The Environmental Protection Agency is coordinating the federal response to situations involving hazardous materials in the region. The agency said people should stay away from any facilities that handle hazardous materials, including waste like propane, chemicals and oil. Instead, they should call the EPA’s Midwestern regional office in Kansas City, Kan., to report potentially dangerous sites. That number is (913) 281-0991.

Mold: The hazard at home
The problems don’t end, however, once you’re back in your home, where mold can pose a significant danger.

“The ground becomes saturated with water, and we get more rain on top of that, and the water has no place to go but to intrude into most people’s basements,” said Ron Engle, general manager of Paul Davis Restoration in Sioux City. “The longer they stay wet, the increased chance they have for damage, and that can lead to mold and other problems.”

The mold left in your home by water is not like the mold that grows on old bread. This mold can cause severe allergic reactions and potentially fatal respiratory seizures, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it begins growing in only 24 hours.

“The first thing you want to do is get everything clean and dry as soon as possible, ideally within 24 to 48 hours,” said Kapp, the Wisconsin health official. “The recommendation is to clean all hard surfaces with a bleach-water solution. Things that can’t be cleaned and dried should be discarded.

“Small areas of mold could be cleaned up by your average homeowner,” Kapp said, but she warned: “If it’s a large area, it would be good to consult an expert for cleanup.”

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