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Floodwaters the likely source of gastro illness

Tinui residents have been reporting cases of severe gastrointestinal illnesses in the aftermath of last week’s flooding, and health professionals are urging caution around floodwater and sediment.

The Ministry of Health [MoH] said floodwater might contain sewage and other hazards that could cause illness.

Most of the reported cases of gastrointestinal-related illnesses have come in the past three days.

A Wairarapa Hospital Emergency Department staff member said they were unaware of anyone presenting to the department with gastrointestinal issues but were watching out for them.

MoH said people who came in contact with floodwater, flooded property, or items contaminated with floodwater should wash their hands with soap and water and dry them thoroughly afterwards.

MoH recommended keeping children and pets away from sediment when possible.

“One of the main risks from contact with floodwater or contaminated items is gastroenteritis, which causes diarrhoea and vomiting,” the ministry advice said.

When it comes to the long-term health effects of flooding, experts say lingering heavy metals and other toxins from dried sediment can impact respiratory health.

Tararua District Council [TDC] said people should also used effective protective clothing, including rubber gloves, boots, and eye protection while cleaning.

If people source their water from a tank or bore, or their water supply has been issued a boil water notice, the water should be boiled for one minute before consumption, TDC advised.

“In some cases, with bores and tanks, water may need to be disposed of or flushed to waste for 24 hours.”

Researchers from the Harvard Medical School in United States said that flooding could bring water contaminated with toxic chemicals, heavy metals, pesticides, biotoxins, sewage, and water-borne pathogens into buildings.

“Afterward, some toxic contaminants remain in dried sediments left behind.

“When disturbed through everyday actions like walking and cleaning, this turns into microscopic airborne dust.”

The Harvard researchers said anything dried in flood sediment could now be in the air you breathe, potentially affecting your respiratory health.

In addition to dust, mould growth could impact people’s respiratory health.

Indoor mould generally grows due to extensive dampness and signals a problem with water or moisture, the researchers said.

“Damp materials inside buildings following a flood create perfect conditions for rapid mould growth.”

Exposure to high concentrations of mould is linked with respiratory complications such as asthma, allergic rhinitis, and sinusitis.

“Flooding affects respiratory health by increasing the risk of exposure to higher concentrations of mould spores outdoors and indoors.”

The researchers also recommend cleaning and drying affected buildings as soon as possible after a flood, and wearing a P2 or N-95 mask to help avoid illness.

MoH has also noted there is a risk to people’s mental health following a flood.

“It is understandable to feel sad, distressed, worried, confused, anxious, or angry – even if you’ve not been impacted personally.”

    For help with anxiety, distress, or mental wellbeing – call or text Need to Talk? on 1737 to speak to a trained counsellor for free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Grace Prior
Grace Prior
Grace Prior is a senior reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with a keen interest in environmental issues. Grace is the paper’s health reporter and regularly covers the rural sector, weather, Greater Wellington Regional Council, and coastal stories.

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