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As Hurricane Irene etched its ragged course through the Northeast recently, residents were somewhat relieved that the wind strength had abated enough to spare widespread structural damage. Visions of a sea of broken glass in New York were fortunately not realized, wave damage to coastal Long Island was less than feared, and damage from windfall trees, while significant, could have been much worse.

The widespread power blackout was a hardship for many, but within a few days power was largely restored in the region.

But Irene had a wicked backhand that caught many communities by surprise. While Irene’s wind may have backed off a bit, its wetness did not. From New Jersey to Vermont, rivers swollen by the heavy rains overflowed their banks and caused widespread flooding which is still wreaking havoc in many communities. As floodwaters subside, residents now face contaminated drinking water supplies due to the storm.

As floodwaters subside, residents now face contaminated drinking water supplies due to the storm.

Tropical storm Lee followed close on Irene’s heels, and again it was the flooding which caused the most damage. Throughout the Northeast, residents and officials were surveying damage, working on recovery and in some cases, still coping with high waters. Drinking water quality is a growing concern to residents in flood stricken parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

“We face a public health emergency because sewage treatment plants are underwater and no longer working,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said as flooding from Lee’s drenching rains inundated central and eastern Pennsylvania. “Flood water is toxic and polluted. If you don’t have to be in it, keep out.”

Runoff from large amounts of rain carries contaminants such as chemical pollutants, microbial pathogens and sewage from failed septic systems into reservoirs and wells, posing health hazards to people’s drinking water supplies. Flooding causes toxic substances to wash out of basements and garages, which pollutes the floodwaters. Bacteria, such as E. coli, can bring serious health consequences to people who come in contact with the microorganisms.  Some of these bacteria may also contain dangerous endotoxins. Viruses may also be present.  Parasites and protozoa are yet another concern.

These infectious agents are a threat to anyone who comes in contact with tainted water supplies.

How to ensure your drinking water is safe

1. Boil your drinking water.

Local municipal and private water utilities have issued “boil-water notices” throughout regions affected by flooding. These directives should be followed carefully to avoid possible infections from drinking tainted water.

When boiling water for safe drinking, be sure to boil it vigorously for 1 minute and allow it to cool to room temperature. Do not add ice. If your residence is at an altitude higher than 6,562 feet, boil the water for a full 3 minutes.

2. Disinfect suspect water with iodine.

If boiling water is not possible, chemical disinfection with iodine (e.g., Globaline, Potable-Aqua, or Coghlan’s, found in pharmacies and sporting goods stores) is another method for making water safer to drink. Cryptosporidium (a parasite that can cause diarrhea) might not be killed by this method.

Iodine for treating water is available in tablet, tincture or crystalline form. Follow instructions on the package carefully, and double the dose if the water is cloudy. Cloudy water should be strained through a clean cloth into a container to remove any sediment or floating matter before treating with iodine.

3. Test your water supply with free testing kits.

Residents with private water wells should test their wells before drinking from them if flooding has occurred. State health departments usually distribute water testing kits for free. These kits usually provide screening for the presence bacteria in drinking water, but more extensive testing is required to check for other possible chemical pollutants. If your drinking water comes from a well, contact your state health authority to see if free water testing kits are available or if further testing is advised.

4. Drink bottled water until the threat passes.

Bottled water supplies are the best assurance that your drinking water is safe. However, bottled water supplies are usually the first to be “out of stock” from store shelves in the advent of a weather emergency. You can also bottle your own water and keep it on hand for emergency use.

5. Have a personal water filter which screens out toxins.

An inexpensive “point-of-use” water filter, The LifeStraw Personal Water Filter, is designed to enable users to drink contaminated water through a filtering tube which screens out contaminants. The LifeStraw filters out 99.9999% of waterborne bacterial contaminants and 99.9% of protozoan parasites found in water. The 0.2 micron filter exceeds EPA guidelines for screening out Escherichia coli and Cryptosporidium oocysts. The LifeStraw has been in use for years in developing countries which lack access to clean drinking water, and has just recently become available to consumers in North America.

Flooding may be the new normal in some regions

The unusually heavy rains which have accompanied the latest round of hurricanes is one of the predicted consequences of climate change. Melting ice from the polar regions has increased moisture levels in the atmosphere, with corresponding amounts of snowfall and rain accompanying seasonal storms. Residents in hurricane-prone regions would be well advised to develop home preparedness measures which minimize the release of pollutants into the environment, and ensure a supply of safe drinking water for the family in the event of flooding and other environmental emergencies.

Click for more information on how to buy a LifeStraw water filter for compromised water.