Contaminated water could be anywhere and everywhere. This motel is in Spring Lake, North Carolina.
Photo: AP

Hurricane Florence unleashed unfathomable amounts of disgusting—and dangerous—substances into the environment. There’s literal pig shit, animal carcasses, and coal ash. These are already entering floodwaters, and there’s likely more pollution to come. After all, flooding in the Carolinas may continue to worsen.

All this isn’t just bad for the waterways and soil. It’s bad for people—for their homes, their air quality, their drinking water, and ultimately their health. Similar public health issues were raised last year after Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria. It all starts with the floodwater, Rebecca Fry, the director of the Institute for Environmental Health Solutions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Earther.

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Floodwater can cause molding in homes, which can spew spores into the air. That can worsen respiratory conditions like asthma, especially if there are already other air quality issues from a nearby highway or a smoker in the home.

“[M]old is definitely a concern,” Stephanie Luster-Teasley, the chair of the civil, architectural, and environmental engineering department at North Carolina A&T University, told Earther.

A hog farm near Trenton, North Carolina.
Photo: AP

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Then, there’s the gunk in the water itself. All the dead animals and their feces increase the likeliness of dangerous bacterial contamination. “People should always assume that flood water is always contaminated,” said Betsey Tilson, the health and medical director of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), to the News & Observer.

In Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, an analysis by the New York Times in December 2017 attributed many deaths to sepsis, which results from bacterial infection. These risks are why the state DHHS and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote to Earther via email that people should wash thoroughly after coming in contact with floodwaters. Kids or unknowing adults may want to make the best of their situation by splashing in the water, but they really shouldn’t.

“People aren’t always aware of these chemicals and want play or swim in the water, which you really don’t want to do when you have a flooding situation because you have this stew of chemicals,” Luster-Teasley told Earther.

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The coal ash is another concern. A Duke Energy-run coal ash pit in Wilmington, North Carolina, has already been compromised. Another is on the verge of flooding at the Grainger Generating Station near Conway, North Carolina. That means toxic substances like arsenic and mercury are already polluting the waterways. Those can cause more than infections; they can poison people.

Coal ash pits are a problem that disproportionately hits low-income and black communities. And these communities aren’t exposed just by the floodwaters lapping at their doorstep. They can be exposed by the water running from their sink.

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“There’s a potential that the hurricane and its associated floods could influence the presence of toxic substances in the groundwater of private wells,” Fry told Earther in an email.

More than three million people in North Carolina rely on well water as their primary drinking source, and Fry worries their supplies may be compromised after the water recedes. She suggests households have their water tested. The potential health impacts from exposure to toxic metals just aren’t worth the risk. People can also invest in filters that remove arsenic, Fry advised.

“An individual’s safety is the first and most urgent priority,” she said.

Still, this service isn’t always free, so individual counties must make it a priority if they want to access the most vulnerable communities’ water supplies. The Beaufort County Public Health Department announced Wednesday it’d be offering free well water testing for bacteria in light of Hurricane Florence, but the notice doesn’t mention toxic metals. Distribution centers are scattered throughout affected areas where people can access water bottles and food.

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County officials and state leaders will need to take initiative and prioritize public health—especially drinking water—if they want to keep their people safe.