Infectious Diseases Could Sweep Across Texas as Harvey Floods Houston

Jessica Firger | Newsweek | August 28, 2017

In the coming weeks and even months, residents of Houston and other parts of southern Texas hit hard by Hurricane Harvey will be faced with the public health disasters that can result from dirty floodwater and landslides. The natural disaster has ostensibly turned the city into a sprawling, pathogen-infested swamp. Up to 25 inches of rain have already accumulated in two days. Rains are expected to continue until Wednesday night, and by the end, Harvey will have dumped 40 to 50 inches on the metropolitan area. Heavy precipitation is turning entire neighborhoods into contaminated and potentially toxic rivers. For many of the city’s residents, contact with floodwater is unavoidable, putting them at risk for diarrhea-causing bacterial infections, Legionnaires’ disease and mosquito-borne viruses.

Officials on Monday drained two flood control reservoirs had been drained to prevent subsequent infrastructure problems. On Tuesday, officials issued additional warnings that the reservoirs are now uncontrollably spilling over and the levees at Columbia Lakes are ruptured. Out of safety concern, many residents of the city aren't drinking the water. Chris Van Deusen, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services, says the local health department has not issued any warnings about drinking water, and that "local officials report that drinking water in the city of Houston is safe, so there is no reason to avoid drinking the water in the city." However, several of the city's municipal utility districts issued boil water notices.

But many Houston residents fear they are without a potable water supply and are sticking with bottled water instead. There are already reports that Texas merchants are price-gouging bottled water, and in some instances a case of water is selling for as much as $99. On Monday, beer company Anheuser-Busch delivered 155,000 cans of emergency drinking water to communities in the Gulf Coast. If access to bottled water is restricted, health officials are recommending that Houston residents boil water to kill off any bacteria. Stagnant water is a breeding ground for all sorts of microscopic pathogens. Pritish Tosh, an infectious diseases physician and researcher at the Mayo Clinic, says hurricane floodwaters may be contaminated with pathogenic Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria thatcan cause serious gastrointestinal illness...