It's been a week since superstorm Sandy unleashed flooding, power outages and wind damage on the east coast, and although recovery efforts are underway, doctors warn that residents are not out of the woods for new health hazards.
Mold Causes Breathing Problems
With flooding comes mold, and it can make victims sick even if it's invisible, doctors warned.
"Even if you're not allergic, mold spores tend to be irritating to the airways and can cause respiratory symptoms," said Dr. David Rosenstreich, the director of Allergy and Immunology at Montefiore Medical Center. He said that an estimated 10 percent to 20 percent of the population is allergic to mold.
Dr. Christopher Portier, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Center for Environmental Health, said mold can trigger asthma and even cause headaches when it's in a certain growth phase.
"Mold is going to be a serious problem unless you take care of it right now," said Portier, who also directs the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. "It's very tricky to predict what's going to happen with it and the bottom line is that you really don't want it in your home."
Visible mold can be wiped away with a bleach and water mixture. Never mix bleach and ammonia because the gas it creates can be deadly.
Portier suggested removing and discarding drywall and insulation that came into contact with floodwater and discarding items that can't be washed. These include mattresses, carpeting, rugs and stuffed animals.
"It's a long-standing problem. Even if you remove the visible mold, there still might be mold growth between the walls," said Dr. Maureen Lichtveld, who chairs the environmental health department at Tulane University School of Public Health. In New Orleans, Lichtveld experienced the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Lichtveld said children and elderly people with asthma and chronic lung disease are most likely to get sick because of mold. It's also possible many children lost their asthma inhalers or didn't have time to refill their prescriptions, putting them at greater risk for an attack.
In the months following Katrina, people in the gulf coast began complaining to their physicians about "Katrina cough," which was thought to be caused by extra bacteria and mold in the air after floodwaters remained for six weeks. However, Lichtveld studied the cough and debunked it as a rumor. She blamed it on the combination of flu season and the dry autumn that followed Hurricane Katrina, resulting in more dust particles in the air.
Rosenstreich said he is most worried about children's bedrooms, but Lichtveld said indoor environments at risk for mold contamination include school, day care and nursing homes.
Bacteria Causes Illnesses and Infections
Floodwaters are dangerous because they often contain raw sewage, as ABC News Chief Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser proved last week, when he tested a sample from lower Manhattan and found gasoline, e.coli and coliform.
But the health risk isn't gone when the water recedes because contaminated puddles and surfaces remain, Portier said.
People, especially children, can get sick by touching contaminated objects and putting their hands in their mouths, causing gastrointestinal problems like diarrhea and vomiting, Portier said. They can also get infections from coming in contact with the bacteria with open sores and cuts, which can be "very difficult to treat."