SMU Professor Warns About Potential Environmental, Water Problems After Harvey

Southern Methodist University professor John Easton, a lecturer at the university’s department of civil and environmental engineering specializing in environmental engineering and water-infrastructure security, is warning about the water-born pathogens and environmental effects of Hurricane Harvey that can arise post-flood.

Easton said one of the top concerns after Harvey would be the viability of the clean-water infrastructure. If the treatment plants or water distribution or collection systems fail, drinking water could be contaminated or sewage could escape into the environment.

“We’re not in a developing part of the world, where you start worrying about cholera and typhoid fever—big killers from 100 years ago—because we have relatively good access to medical care,” Easton said in a statement. “But, when you have people walking around in water that might be contaminated with sewage, there is a higher risk for infection of the skin and so forth. There can also be viruses that get aerosolized from the dirty water, and that’s not good.”

Easton said if dire conditions arose and Houstonians drank untreated water, it’s “pretty likely you’re going to be exposed to a pathogen—bacterial, viral, or protozoan.” Those bacteria can cause gastroenteritis, leading to vomiting and diarrhea. “Hopefully, nobody is relying on this untreated water,” he said. “If it smells bad and looks bad, don’t drink it.”

Additionally, chemical plants and spills that occurred in Houston from Harvey could cause long-term detrimental effects to public health, Easton said. The organic compounds spread during a spill are especially unhealthy. “If you consume a whopping dose, you’ll feel toxic effects immediately, and potentially face a long-term increased risk of cancer,” he said.

Long-term, Easton said, the Houston region’s concerns may not be water or sewage, but mosquito infestation. That’s because standing water will remain for a long period as clean-up ensues.

“The things you think of with mosquitos, like West Nile virus and Zika, you’re going to have more problems with those than you would otherwise,” Easton said. “Wear your DEET, wear long pants, don’t go outside with exposed skin, and get rid of standing water on your property as best you can. Mosquitos don’t travel far—their average range is 100 feet–so if you get bit by a mosquito, it’s likely living nearby.”

Posted in News, Public Health.