Addressing Environmental Health Concerns After a Hurricane


The Duke University Superfund Research Center Analytical Chemistry Core, as well as the Research Translation and Community Engagement Cores are working to respond to environmental health questions and community needs related to Hurricane Florence, which struck North Carolina in September 2018. 

After a hurricane, people are more likely to come in contact with chemical hazards. This page offers information to help you protect your health after a flood event.

 

Health Risks

After a hurricane, there is an increased risk that the public may be exposed contaminants that can harm health, including both biological contaminants (such as bacteria or viruses) and chemical contaminants (such as heavy metals, like lead, or pesticides), that can enter the environment due to the movement of materials from wind damage or flooding. The Duke University Superfund Research Center is focused on the long-term, low dose exposures to chemical contaminants, rather than biological contaminants, so this page does not contain information on how to reduce health risks from bacteria, viruses, or other pathogens that can also cause concern immediately following a hurricane.

What are the health risks of exposure to chemical contaminants after a flooding event? Health risks associated with exposure to contaminants depend on several factors:

  • How a person is exposed, or the pathway of exposure;
  • The type of contaminant they are exposed to;
  • How much they are exposed to, and over what length of time;
  • Who that person is, and how their characteristics affect health risks. For example, young children, and pregnant or nursing mothers are more vulnerable to health risks from bacterial contaminants and chemical contaminants.

Being aware of potential sources of contamination is an important step towards determining specific health concerns. See the next section for more information on this topic.

For more on the health effects associated with particular contaminants, visit the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) ToxFAQs: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxfaqs/

 

Potential Sources of Contamination

What are some potential sources of chemical contamination during and after a flooding event? In order to determine potential health risks, it is important to first be aware of possible sources of contamination that may have left behind chemicals in soil and water after the hurricane. 

When contaminated sites are flooded, it can cause chemical contaminants at normally contained sites to disperse through the environment, and they can end up in places where people normally live, work, and play.

Simply being in a flood zone or close to a possible source of contamination, however, does not necessarily mean that your area has been contaminated.

You can’t see or smell most chemical contaminants, so ultimately the best way to know for sure what is in your soil, water, or other media, is to perform testing for contaminants if you have a serious concern. Click here for a list of options for testing contaminated soil at private labs in North Carolina, listed by contaminant type.

 

Try using the Duke University Superfund Research Center’s map to identify potential sources of contamination near you, and to help you narrow down which contaminants to test for if you have a concern. Click here to access the tool!

This map was created as a response to flooding after Hurricane Florence in September 2018 to compile publicly-available data about potential sources of contamination and known hurricane-related incidents along with flood data for North Carolina. The map is not a comprehensive picture of all potential sources of contamination in the state. It merely offers a snapshot of publicly available data as of early October in 2018. 

The purpose of the map is to raise awareness about chemical contaminants that may have entered the environment during a flood, and to help individuals think through methods for reducing or preventing potential exposure to harmful chemicals. It is based on exposure screening tools like the Environmental Protection Agency’s EJ SCREEN tool and this map from the NC Department of Environmental Quality. It may also inform your decision about whether to pursue additional testing for contaminants, and which specific contaminants to test for.

The flood map layer was compiled based on data from the Dartmouth Flood Observatory and the European Union’s Copernicus Emergency Management Service to form a single flood inundation estimate. 

List of Common Sources of Contamination to Consider

Below is a list of some common potential sources of contamination in our communities that you will encounter on our map. These potential sources are meant to raise awareness about the possibility that chemical contaminants may have entered the environment during a flood and help you think through ways to reduce exposure in the long term. 

Click each site type below to expand its description.

Housing built before 1978
Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) sites
Superfund sites
Brownfields
Dry cleaning facilities
Underground storage tanks (RUST)
Hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities
Pre-regulatory landfills
Major roadways
Coal ash storage ponds
Agricultural lands, or land applied with “biosolids”
Places where debris such as treated wood is being burned for disposal

Additional Flood Mapping Resources

Here are some additional maps from various agencies that may help to inform decision making after Hurricane Florence. These layers are not included on the Duke University Superfund Research Center mapping tool, but can provide more detail on areas that were flooded. 

 

Post-Hurricane Action Steps for Communities

Communities Near Former Industrial Sites

Health Risks

The primary risk scenario that occurs near former industrial sites after a hurricane happens when floodwater causes the spread of industrial chemicals into soil, water, or air. Contamination may also result from fires or accidental releases that cause airborne emissions and deposition into soils.

People may be exposed to contaminants from former industrial sites in a number of ways, including accidentally eating soil through hand to mouth contact or drinking contaminated water, touching contaminated soil or water, or breathing in contaminated air.

What Can I Do?

  • Report any spills or incidents at former industrial sites to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, or your local health department.
  • Always protective equipment when cleaning up after a flood, especially if you live near a former industrial site. Visit this Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guide for on proper protective equipment for cleanup efforts.

Community and Home Gardeners

Health Risks

  • Contaminated soils: After a hurricane, the main risk to health in community gardens comes from floodwaters that can cause pollution to seep into water or soil. Chemical (and biological) contaminants from surrounding areas can inundate gardens and seep into soils. Some contaminants will stick around in soil, while others are water soluble and will more easily wash away.
  • Contaminated irrigation sources: If city water or private wells were impacted by the hurricane, then so is the water you will be using to irrigate the garden. Check local advisories – if there is a “boil” advisory for your local water source, wait until the advisory is cancelled to use this water source to irrigate food crops.
  • Contaminated crops: Crops exposed to floodwaters may be exposed to bacterial contaminants. See the “What Can I Do” section below for resources to help you deal with the risks from biological contamination of produce.

What Can I Do?

  • Stay safe while cleaning up! Avoid contact with standing flood waters. Wash your hands frequently during and after garden cleanup. Remove all clothes and shoes used during garden cleanup before entering homes.
  • Think before you compost! Don’t compost material that may have been contaminated by floodwaters. Discard and do not use any compost piles that were flooded.
  • Avoid the risk of bacterial infection and contamination. If food crops have come into contact with floodwater, use gloves to discard them. This is the most conservative (safest) approach, but it is not the only guidance you will find available.
  • Document, in case concerns arise later. Take pictures, but don’t touch, any substances that you don’t recognize that may present concern of contamination. Remember that just because you don’t see visible signs of contamination, doesn’t mean that there is not a health concern! You may be able to share your photos with authorities or experts for more information (online or otherwise) for more input on possible risks.
  • What if I may have come in contact with chemicals? If you think you may have come into contact with toxic chemicals, contact the National Poison Control Center hotline 24/7 by calling 1-800-222-1222. The CDC’s Emergency Preparedness guidebook provides general safety guidelines for cleanup after a hurricane, and they have some helpful tips available on protecting yourself from chemicals after a natural disaster.
    • Lead paint concerns: If there are houses on or near your garden property that were built before 1978, there is a potential for contamination from lead paint. If you suspect you need cleanup for lead contamination, find a certified lead professional here: https://schs.dph.ncdhhs.gov/lead/accredited.cfm
    • Check for sources of possible contamination in the garden that may have been impacted by the weather event. Check containers of pesticides, household chemicals, oil, fertilizers, or machinery that were stored in or around the garden that may have spilled into the garden or gotten into flood waters.
    • What if there has been a chemical spill? If you are concerned about a spill, call your local health department or the NC Department of Environmental Quality to help you dispose of these chemicals safely. If inundation has been severe, containers may have traveled from offsite.
    • Pesticide safety: The National Pesticide Information Center offers fact sheets on reducing pesticide exposure risks when preparing for a natural disaster and after a disaster occurs.
  • Get your soil tested: If you have an idea of what contaminants may be present in your soils, you can get your soil tested for contaminants. Find labs for testing specific contaminants at this link: https://sites.nicholas.duke.edu/superfund/gardens/#link5

People Who Catch and Eat Fish

Health Risks

The primary risk associated with consuming fish from local waters is the ingestion of contaminated fish tissue due to the potential for harmful contaminants to come in contact with the fish following a flooding event. As of October 2018, most waterways in North Carolina were affected in some way by floodwaters. Since chemical contaminants take time to build up in fish tissue, however, brief events, such as flooding, usually do not affect chemical contaminants stored in fish tissue.

The primary pathways to exposure in this scenario include eating, or possibly touching, contaminated fish tissue. The contaminants that are most frequently of concern if eaten include mercury, PCBs, and dioxins.

What Can I Do?

  • Check local fish consumption advisories provided by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services by visiting bit.ly/eatsafefish With no statewide advisory updates after the hurricanes, areas impacted by floods should continue to follow advisories from before the hurricane. 
  • If you consume shellfish, check updates on shellfish consumption provided by the NCDEQ-Marine Fisheries Division by visiting their page on Shellfish Polluted Areas. Shellfish are more likely to have an increased level of contaminants immediately after a flooding event since they feed by filtering water. Once water quality standards are met, shellfish beds will reopen.
  • Do not consume fish from a “fish kill.” Massive die-offs of fish are a common occurrence after the hurricane due to low oxygen levels in waterbodies) due the risk of bacterial and chemical contamination.
  • Properly prepare fish for consumption. In general it is still a best practice to always properly clean, fillet, and cook fish. 
  • For more information on the pathways and health risks of these contaminants, see the Duke University Superfund Research Center’s webpage on our work with an EPA Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem Solving grant team and our fact sheet on Mercury in Fish.

 

Images: 

“Health risks” icon: medical by Mello from the Noun Project

“Potential sources” icon: Map Marker by Magicon from the Noun Project

“Former industrial sites” icon: Factory by Isabel Martínez Isabel from the Noun Project

“Community gardeners” icon: Community Garden by Krisada from the Noun Project

“People Who Catch and Eat Fish” icon: Fishing by indra anis from the Noun Project