Hurricane Sandy’s wrath has only just ended and the extensive destruction felt by millions of families along the East Coast is slowly being put into perspective. Widespread power outages, fuel shortages, and massive damage to property are merely the acute effects brought on by the monster storm. The long-term effects from sewer disruption and water contamination have not yet been fully realized but present a very real threat to both human and environmental health.
Connecticut reported that a disruption in a wastewater treatment facility in Branford resulted in 55,000 gallons of raw, untreated sewage spilling into the Atlantic. CBS estimates that between 15 and 20 million gallons of partially treated sewage flowed into the Long Island Sound due to flood damage. Similar stories of polluted waterways have been reported all along the East Coast. The impact of hazardous wastes on oceans, lakes, and rivers, among other water sources, may include severe alterations to aquatic ecosystems.
However, sewage is only part of the problem. Public health and environmental officials have raised concerns about contamination from toxic industrial waste. Humans may be exposed to toxic chemicals, from both sewage and industrial waste, via ingestion, inhalation, or dermal contact, which can lead to a range of health issues, from mild gastrointestinal illness to more severe, as of yet unknown long-term health effects.
In Brooklyn, N.Y., the 1.8 mile-long Gowanus canal overflowed, discharging industrial pollution into the streets and homes of neighborhood residents, who have resorted to using hand-held pumps to flush the potentially toxic water from their basements. Additionally, young children may unintentionally ingest hazardous waste from standing water, or contaminated sediment and debris left behind by the floodwaters.
These types of toxic waste sites may contain common chemicals found in garages or basements, such as pesticides, gasoline, and paint as well as the waste from industries in the surrounding areas, including metal-working and pencil manufacturing. Exposure to these chemicals have long been cited as dangerous to health, and officials recommend adhering to boil water orders, avoiding contact with contaminated water supplies, and using protective gear, such as gloves and boots, if exposure cannot be avoided. Furthermore, the most basic safety precaution, regular hand washing, will offer significant protection.
One additional health concern may be the infestation of displaced rats in new areas. Although the flooding of the sewer systems in New York City likely drowned many of the rodents, they are a rather resilient species that can both swim and climb effectively. If fleeing rats resort to invading neighborhoods and homes, humans’ risk to diseases, such as hantavirus, typhus, salmonella, and even the plague, is certainly increased.