Communities in many parts of Canada are bracing for or already experiencing floods.
And while people surround their homes with sandbags, there are some important health hazards to keep an eye out for, in order to stay safe.
Here are some of the biggest health risks during — and after — a flood.
During the flood
As the water rises, some of the biggest risks are related to injury, according to Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health.
“One of the major risks of flooding is actually drowning and injury due to electrocution when water and electricity come into contact,” she said. “So if you have a generator or hydro on when your property is flooded, that’s dangerous.”
Never assume any area of your property affected by flooding is safe, the Electrical Safety Authority said in a press release. If you have to leave your home during a flood, they recommend switching the main breaker to the “OFF” position. If you suspect water has risen above electrical outlets, baseboard heaters, your furnace or near your electrical panel, they say to stay out of your property as electricity can move through water or wet flooring and give you a serious shock.
High waters can also conceal hazards beneath the surface, like open manhole covers or other things, and people are also at risk of drowning during a flood.
“Absolutely avoid areas that are flooded,” Etches said.
“That may mean leaving your home sometimes. That’s very difficult to do, but it’s not safe [to remain] and your safety has to be the top priority.”
The other major hazard is the water itself. Flood water is not very clean, which brings a risk of infection, she said.
“Flood waters themselves can carry bacteria or viruses, and when some of these rural areas have wells and septic systems, when the ground gets flooded, the drinking water can be contaminated with bacteria and viruses. So we certainly want to make sure that people aren’t drinking that water or that they boil it before they drink it.”
The most common flood-related illnesses are gastrointestinal infections, according to the Government of Manitoba. This is usually caused by drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated food, and results in symptoms like stomach aches, vomiting and diarrhea.
Sherry Beadle, manager of health protection with Ottawa Public Health, said that if your drinking water comes from a well and the water has risen over the top of the well, it’s potentially contaminated.
“Our recommendation then is to use an alternate drinking water source until such time that the flood waters recede and their well can be disinfected and testing can be done to ensure that there’s no bacteria,” Beadle said.
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Cuts or sores on your skin can also be infected by dirty flood water, so you should wash with soap and water and apply an antibiotic ointment if your cuts touch flood water, the Manitoba government says.
If you’re sandbagging or helping with flood relief, you should wear protective clothing like gloves, boots and overalls, and wash your hands with soap and water after coming into contact with flood water or handling objects contaminated with the water. If you accidentally get flood water in your eyes or mouth, you should rinse with clean water.
You should also be prepared to evacuate, Beadle said, and keep a 72-hour supply of clean food and water just in case.
After the flood
Once the waters recede, they leave behind a lot of wet stuff. Some of it can be dried out and salvaged, and some can’t.
The City of Calgary recommends that you think about tossing out soft things like bedding, clothing, upholstered furniture and carpets, on its flood information website.
You should always throw away food, cosmetics, medication, rugs, mattresses and pillows, it says.
The Electrical Safety Authority recommends you get a licensed contractor to inspect your home’s electrical system if your house got flooded, and not plug in any appliances that have been touched by water until they have been checked by an expert.
It’s important to then clean and disinfect your home room by room, then dry everything out as quickly as possible by opening doors and windows and using fans and dehumidifiers. Beadle warns, though, that running equipment like gas-operated generators and water pumps indoors can cause a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
You want to get the drying done quickly, to prevent the growth of mould. Mould can appear as a discolouration on walls and ceilings, but can also grow on almost any organic material, like wood, paper and fabric, according to the Government of Manitoba. It also has a musty or earthy smell.
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Mould can appear on damp materials in just 48 hours, the province says.
It can cause stuffy noses, irritated eyes, wheezing or skin irritation. More seriously, it can exacerbate asthma symptoms or cause difficulty breathing, or even lung infections. People with allergies, asthma and other breathing conditions or immune system deficiencies, as well as pregnant women, children, and the elderly, are most likely to be affected, the government said.
Finally, after a flood, mental health can be a concern. “When people work really hard to protect their homes, the long hours and the stress of it can give rise to the need for mental health supports,” Etches said. People might also be displaced from their homes or face other issues, and it can take weeks to recover, she said.
She wants people to know that it’s OK to reach out for support if you feel too stressed, she said. The City of Ottawa has a website listing various mental health resources for the Ottawa area and beyond. Ottawa Public Health also has a website addressing common flood-related concerns.
— With files from Beatrice Britneff