Rain goes, health risks arise

June 30, 2006|by TIFFANY ARNOLD


As the floodwaters recede, a new set of worries has emerged amid cleanup efforts throughout Washington County this week.

Health officials now are warning people about contaminated surface water and other health risks that have arisen in the aftermath of this week's flooding rains.

In addition to contaminated water, health officials said people should be concerned about mold, mosquitoes and carbon monoxide poisoning.

"It's quite possible that contaminated (surface) water could reach people with wells, even if their homes weren't flooded," said Rod MacRae, spokesman for the Washington County Health Department.

Health department officials encouraged well users to test their water. Testing kits, for a fee, are available from the health department's Environmental Health Division, MacRae said.


Mold also is a major issue as homeowners attempt to get rid of massive amounts of water.

"Mold is ubiquitous, it's everywhere," said Dr. Clive Brown, a medical epidemiologist for the Air Pollution and Respiratory Health Branch of the National Center for Environmental Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mold grows best in damp environments - the reason Brown said people should try to get things dry within 48 hours.

"Get rid of things that retain moisture, like sofas, curtains and mattresses," Brown said.

If left unchecked, mold can cause respiratory infections and other health problems, particularly for those who have asthma or weakened immune systems, Brown said. It also can cause costly structural damage.

Five days of storms dumped more than 8 inches of rain on Washington County, according to, a Web site maintained by local weather observer Greg Keefer.

It will cost about $250,000 to clean up damage to the county's infrastucture, said Gary Rohrer, the county's public works director. While floodwaters have damaged many of the region's roads, "the biggest expense will be cleanup," Rohrer said.

Lehman's Carpet Cleaning has been inundated with calls since the rains started Monday.

"There's a waiting list," said Natalie Lehman, an owner of the business.

Lehman said most people don't consider mold when they're dealing with floodwaters.

"We can dry the carpet, but it's the padding," Lehman said. "The padding acts as a sponge, and it holds onto the water. That's where the mildew grows. We have to explain that to people up front."

People pumping out water on their own also must be aware of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, CDC officials warn.

The CDC said more than 500 people die from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning each year. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas emitted from gas or charcoal-burning devices, such as generators, grills and stoves.

"People should never use a combustible engine inside an enclosed area," MacRae said.

Large pools of standing water also attract mosquitoes, known transmitters of disease, health officials said.

"Get it dried out as soon as possible," said Mike Scott, a professor of geography and geoscience at Salisbury University.

Scott co-authored a report last fall on the state's vulnerability to flooding. He said Washington County is moderately vulnerable to flooding compared with other counties in the state.

A little more than 9 percent of all of the land in Washington County is in a flood plain, Scott said. The percentages are 61 percent and 58 percent, respectively, for Dorchester and Somerset counties.

Scott said Washington County typically has heavy rains later in the summer, when tropical storms are more prevalent.

"That's the thing," Scott said. "We're just getting started. We may not get the wind, but up here in the mountains, we get the rain."

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