Back in 2005, when my book "False Alarm: the Truth About the Epidemic of Fear" was first published, my editor said it didn’t matter exactly when we released it since potential disasters and strong responses by public officials were occurring all the time. “All we have to do is find the next disaster and pin the book to it,” he said.
This statement turned out to be prophetic. The latest example of this worst case scenario is Hurricane Irene, which was billed by government officials up and down the Eastern Seaboard as a storm with the potential end to civilization as we know it.
Of course, evacuations from beach areas made precautionary sense, and yes officials knew they would be blamed if they underreacted to another hurricane after Katrina, nevertheless the sense of impending doom was greatly exaggerated, as it often is.
Which is not to say that the level one hurricane turned tropical storm didn’t cause real havoc, and that there aren’t real and growing health concerns in its wake.
The amount of flooding throughout several states including North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey, and New York was unprecedented, and hundreds if not thousands of trees were felled by the storm, leading to injuries and several deaths. Roads were made impassable in many places, and traffic accidents are sure to result for weeks. People who make their way through the floodwaters are also at risk of injury from the unseen objects lurking there.
The floodwaters themselves are also not safe. Sewers overflowed and raw sewage mixed with overflowing rivers and streams to pose an ongoing health risk of contamination with bacteria and other toxins.
It is deeply disturbing to me as a physician to see people swimming and children playing in these waters. In fact, people who swim in these inland flood waters risk exposure to toxins, parasites, and bacteria, and getting sick with dysentery.
The footage of Fox reporter Tucker Barnes in Ocean City, Maryland being overcome by toxic sea foam may have appeared humorous at first, that is until you consider that the foam washing over him also contained raw sewage and bacteria.
Many Americans get sick every year from billions of gallons of raw sewage that seeps into our waterways. A recent study found that more than a million Californians per year develop gastrointestinal infections at beaches in two counties where the water is contaminated by sewage.
Even as Hurricane Irene recedes in our memories, the health risks are really just beginning. With millions having lost power in the storm, there is a growing risk of not having useable drinking water and water to clean with or fresh food to eat. As power outages persist in places and outside temperatures rise, young infants and elderly people with chronic health problems will be at greatest risk of dehydration and death.
What can people do?
• Avoid floodwaters. Beware of sharp objects hidden in these waters. If you are exposed, change your clothes and wash thoroughly in clean water if possible. Remember that many of the floodwaters contain animals, alive or dead, and raw sewage from overflowing sewage pipes.
• If brown water is coming out of your tap, do not drink it without boiling it first. If you are not able to boil it, treat first with chlorine, or find another source.
• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns against eating unrefrigerated food that is kept at more than 40 degrees for more than two hours. If you aren’t sure about it, then throw it out.
• Do not use generators or barbecues indoors because of potential carbon monoxide poisoning.
• Buddy up. If you are living in a neighborhood where the power is on, then share food and facilities with those who do not have power. My parents live on Long Island and have lost power this week. My father values his privacy greatly, but I have finally convinced him to come and take a shower and have a hot meal at my place.
• If you are not feeling well, be quicker to call 911. Remember that it will take longer for EMS to get to your house because of the trees down and the water in the streets.
Granted, Irene could have been far worse, and the storm's bark was worse that its ultimate bite. But for many, the real health problems are growing by the day. Try telling someone who lost power or has a fallen tree in their yard or a toxic stream blocking their street that the storm is over and they should go back to business as usual. You may not like the look they give you.
Marc Siegel, M.D. is an associate professor of medicine and Medical Director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. He is a member of the Fox News Medical A Team and the author of several books. His latest book is "The Inner Pulse: Unlocking the Secret Code of Sickness and Health."