Health department warns of floodwater dangers

The Florida Department of Health in Alachua County has issued water usage guidelines and a warning about the risk of bacteria, viruses and displaced wildlife in floodwaters.

“Reports of sewage overflows are being assessed by the Alachua County Health Department, and impacted areas with private potable wells are particularly concerning,” Paul Myers, the health department administrator, said in a statement. “Additionally, residents and visitors should avoid exposure to standing water, including retention basins and local urban creeks.”

Tropical Storm Elsa skirted Alachua County on Wednesday, but the storm’s outer bands dumped up to 6 inches of rain on the area and caused localized flooding. Officials have asked citizens to report any damage using online portals

The health department warned that floodwaters may contain fecal material, snakes, insects and more. It issued the followed guidance for those who have an inundated private potable well or see their water become discolored: 

  • Use bottled water or some other alternative water source for consumption. (Consumption includes drinking, making ice, washing fruits and vegetables and brushing teeth.)
  • Bringing well water to a rolling boil for one minute. If boiling is not possible, use a disinfecting chemical: Put eight drops of common household bleach (unscented)—which is about 1/8 of a teaspoon—into one gallon of tap water, then shake it. Let it stand for 30 minutes before drinking. 
  • If water is cloudy, use 16 drops of bleach—about 1/4 of a teaspoon—and shake it. After 30 minutes, there should be a slight chlorine odor. Use common household bleach that has 5 percent to 8 percent active ingredients. Use food-grade containers.  
  • If using water purification tablets or iodine available at sports and camping stores, follow label directions.

The health department said residents can use non-treated tap water for bathing, shaving and washing but should avoid swallowing the water or allowing it in the eyes, nose or mouth. The department advised parents or guardians to supervise children and disabled individuals to ensure water is not ingested and to minimize time spent bathing.

“Though the risk of illness is minimal, individuals who have recent surgical wounds, are immunosuppressed, or have a chronic illness may want to consider using bottled or boiled water (that has cooled) for cleansing until the water system is cleared,” the health department said in a press release. It said anyone with open cuts or sores that become irritated after contact with floodwaters should seek immediate medical attention. 

For homes on a septic system experiencing plumbing issues, the department issued the following guidance and options: 

  • Conserve water as much as possible; the less water used, the less sewage the septic tank must process. 
  • Consider renting a portable toilet for a temporary period.
  • Do not have the septic tank pumped. Exceptionally high water tables might crush a septic tank that was pumped dry. If the fundamental problem is high groundwater, pumping the tank does nothing to solve that problem.
  • If you cannot use your plumbing without creating a sanitary nuisance (i.e., without sewage being exposed inside or outside the home), consider moving to a new location until conditions improve. 
  • Do not have the septic tank and drainfield repaired until the ground has dried. Often systems are completely functional when unsaturated conditions return. For your protection, any repair must be permitted and inspected by your county health department.

The health department also issued general guidance for preventing illness, including regular hand-washing (with boiled-and-cooled water), use of disinfectant during food prep, and avoiding eating or drinking anything floodwaters may have contaminated.

“Basic hygiene is critical,” the health department said.

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