Published November 01, 2012
With many of New Jersey's cities and towns still experiencing significant flooding, several of the state's municipalities have issued boil water advisories, warning consumers that the public drinking water could possibly be contaminated and unsafe to drink.
So far 12 municipalities in New Jersey have issued advisories -- including Atlantic City MUA, New Brunswick Water Department and Ship Bottom, among others. When a boil advisory is instituted, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention advises that water should be brought to a rolling boil for one minute -- excluding the time it took for the water to boil -- before consumption. Drinking from bottled water is also an option for residents.
"Disruptions to water supply treatment due to power outages and flooding can lead to serious health issues, Mary O'Dowd, New Jersey Health Commissioner, said in a statement. "It's important that our residents continue to stay informed so they can take measures to protect themselves and their families."
For a complete list of boil water advisories, as well as steps residents in these communities should take, visit the New Jersey Department of Health website. O'Dowd said state and local officials will continue to monitor the quality of the state's water supply, and the public should monitor updates from the department as to how to proceed with their water.
Health advisories of this kind are not uncommon in the wake of major hurricanes -- especially if there has been significant flooding, resulting in standing water. As was seen in Hoboken, N.J., fears of flood water mixing sewage with the water supply have many wondering about diseases such as E. coli, among others.
According to health experts, while people should be concerned and take precautions before they drink tap water, outbreaks of infectious diseases after hurricanes are quite rare.
"The major problems that we see [after hurricanes] are diarrheal illness," Dr. Frank Esper, an infectious disease specialist with UH Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, told FoxNews.com. "But because the United States doesn't have these bad and deadly germs normally, when you get this complete breakdown of the water system, you really don't have to worry about diseases such as cholera and typhoid."
However, Esper said it is important to check the water supply for other types of bacteria -- ones that already exist in the U.S.
"We certainly do screen all water sources and look for presence of contaminated water," Esper said. "[Officials] look for coliform bacteria and E. coli -- which is one type of coliform bacteria. These are bacteria usually found in human and animal waste. If we detect E. coli, it's not that those types of bacteria themselves are dangerous, but it suggests the water was contaminated by waste and there may be a presence of more dangerous disease causing bacteria in there."
While the term E. coli may seem like a significant contaminate, Esper noted it actually isn't that harmful. Just because E. coli is found in the water supply does not mean the water is toxic. In fact, E. coli is a somewhat ubiquitous bacterium, and many people interact with it on a daily basis.
"Most E. coli is completely harmless," Esper said. "Most people have it inside them; it's supposed to be there to digest food. However when you get a huge burden of E. coli or a specific strain of E. coli -- that can really cause disease. Last year, we had the E. coli outbreak in Brussels sprouts in Germany -- but that was a very specific and very rare strain."
However, as the flood water stops flowing and forms into standing water, bacteria growth is more likely to occur as the water remains. The water slowly becomes warmer and provides bacteria with a good medium for expansion.
"Wading through standing water can potentially put people at risk, especially if that water has been there for a long period of time," Dr. Joseph Rahimian, an infectious disease specialist for NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, told FoxNews.com. "We saw this in Katrina, people were wading through stagnant water and they developed infections from Vibrio,"-- bacteria found in saltwater, which can cause infection.
With many people concerned about water-borne diseases in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Esper assured that as long as residents follow instructions from their health officials, public health will not be in jeopardy.
"Yes, germs spread much more easily in water than they can through dry air," Esper said. "But we deal with this public health-wise every day. Think of your community pool -- it's used for recreation, but it's a body of water you throw 200 people into everyday. They swim around and pass their germs. Which is why preventing germs through chlorine is how we avoid that spread. [The spread of germs through water] is something we're pretty adept at preventing."