Dr. John Sinnott was driving through downtown St. Petersburg on Sunday and saw children playing in a flooded street.
"I stopped and told them, 'You shouldn't be playing there. It's dangerous.' And they just looked at me like I was some stupid old man.''
Sinnott is the director of infectious diseases at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine and director of epidemiology at Tampa General Hospital.
Flood waters are full of scary-sounding viruses and bacteria, along with pesticides, insecticides, animal feces, sewage from septic tanks, gasoline, motor oil and other roadway runoff.
"You are walking or playing in water that has washed off of acres and acres of land and roadways," said Sinnott, "This is not the same as strolling along the beach."
And you don't have to get a mouthful of contaminated water to get sick or infected. Pollutants and microbes can enter the body through mucous membranes in the nose and eyes, through cuts and scrapes in the skin, even a torn cuticle. The result can range from a mildly infected cut or stomach discomfort to something much more serious that requires a trip to the emergency room.
Danger may also be lurking below the water's surface. From the rusty nail your mother always warned you about to glass, rough boards, sharp metal, rocks and shells, any number of objects can cut the unwary. Downed power lines may be hidden under water. People even have been sucked into drain pipes and caught in strong currents created by pressure in drainage systems.
Tips to protect yourself:
• Children's toys that have been touched by floodwaters — particularly anything youngsters might put in their mouths — should be carefully disinfected. Same goes for all food preparation surfaces, containers and implements and laundry items.
• Use a disinfectant that contains bleach or make your own with a tablespoon of unscented bleach mixed in a gallon of clean water; let it stand for 15 minutes. If sewage may be present clean items using a quarter cup of bleach in a gallon of water.
• Wash dirty laundry in hot, soapy water.
• Don't eat or drink anything that has come in contact with flood waters.
• Discard wooden dishes, utensils and cutting boards, as well as baby bottle nipples and pacifiers that have come in contact with flood waters—they cannot be safely cleaned.
• If you have open cuts, sores or wounds that have been exposed to flood waters, clean the area with soap and water, swab with antiseptic, use antibacterial ointment and apply a clean dressing.
• If redness, swelling or a discharge develops, seek immediate medical attention. Cuts, bad scrapes and punctures may require a tetanus booster (recommended every 10 years).
• If you must wade through standing water, wear shoes. As soon as possible, bathe with soap and put on clean clothes. "It's not enough to just rinse off with a garden hose. You must use soap," says Sinnott.
• If you're cleaning up after the flood, wash hands with soap frequently especially before preparing or eating food and after toilet use.
• If the power goes out make arrangements to keep medication that requires refrigeration cool.
• All this water makes mosquitos — and the diseases they carry — more of a threat. Protect yourself when outdoors with clothing and repellents containing DEET. Picaridin, oil of lemon, eucalyptus, and IR3535 are also effective. Do your best to drain standing water away from your home and repair torn screens.
Sources: Hillsborough County Health Department; www.cdc.gov; www.fda.gov. Prevention.com