Be it flood-damaged vehicle fires or mold sickness or interruptions in daily regimens for those suffering from non-communicable diseases, there are health and safety risks associated with the aftermath of a hurricane that some fail to appreciate while others may lack the financial resources to mitigate.
Storm surge during Hurricane Dorian not only damaged homes and businesses, but also left hundreds of vehicles flooded in salt water for several days.
After the waters receded, flood-damaged vehicles made their way onto the streets, posing a potential danger to drivers and to the wider motoring public that many may not be aware of.
While driving in Freeport several days ago we noticed a car with a cracked tail light and on closer view, the light fixture was filled with water.
“Salt is a conductor and if electrical components get compromised by salt it is going to create a short which will then create heat and then turn into a fire,” local mechanic Thomas Atkinson advised in an interview with Perspective.
“A case has already happened here on the island with a Buick LaCrosse,” he noted. “Someone drove it to a repair facility and while it was sitting in the parking lot it caught fire.”
Shortages in a vehicle’s electrical system can also cause malfunctions in components such as air bags and anti-lock brakes, increasing risks for accidents and injury.
“Most of the effects from flood damage to vehicles are not immediate,” Atkinson warned. “You will get in your vehicle and it would be working and then a week, two weeks or even a month later you will notice that certain components will stop working because the salt has finally worked its way through the electrical components and caused them to fail.”
He advised residents to have their vehicles checked by a qualified technician prior to use.
Dangers to the motoring public through the use of flood-damaged vehicles not only exist for one’s personal cars and trucks but also for vehicles used for public transportation where multiple passengers can be at risk in a single trip.
In the aftermath of a disaster people seek convenience and survival options that will not cut into funds that might be depleted or non-existent.
As such, paying a qualified technician to have one’s car checked with the potential of necessary repairs might seem a less attractive or viable option than simply using a vehicle that seems to be working for the time being.
Until such time as the renewal of one’s car insurance, which will require an inspection from a certified motor engineer, drivers are willing to take the risk.
But it is a risk that could result in disaster for those who have already suffered loss as a result of Dorian.
In a recent Perspective poll, 71 percent of storm victims said they believed exposure to mold in Dorian’s aftermath was affecting their health while 29 percent said they experienced no health impact that they were aware of.
Extensive flooding on Abaco and Grand Bahama has triggered an explosion of mold growth that homeowners and business owners have been struggling to clean up and contain, with varying degrees of success.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), for those who are sensitive to mold, exposure to damp and moldy environments can cause nasal stuffiness, throat irritation, coughing or wheezing, eye irritation and in some cases, skin irritation.
People with mold allergies may have more severe reactions, the CDC advises, with immune-compromised people and people with chronic lung illnesses being at risk of serious lung infections when they are exposed to mold.
In Freeport, the Grand Bahama Port Authority has facilitated mold remediation seminars for contractors and residents.
Residents who cannot afford mold remediation by qualified companies have sought to remove mold from their flood-soaked homes using mixtures of vinegar and peroxide — though they are likely unaware that mixing these two chemicals in the same container creates peracetic acid which is corrosive and irritating to the eyes, skin and mucous membranes of the respiratory tract.
Others, we are told, believe that simply wiping down their sheetrock and surfaces with bleach will kill mold contamination, not recognizing that while bleach can kill mold on surface contact, it will not stop mold growth beneath the surface.
In response to our questions on the observed impact of mold exposure on Grand Bahama, local pediatrician Dr. Tamarra Moss confirmed an increase in respiratory complaints in children since the passage of Dorian.
“Perhaps what will be more telling of Dorian’s impact on the incidence of respiratory complaints is persistently increased numbers throughout the year and going into summer of next year,” she stated.
“That would support a theory of persistent exposure to a trigger unrelated to seasonal changes, namely mold.”
Mold exposure, Dr. Moss noted, is a key concern among medical professionals on the island post-Dorian.
“I think mitigating the risk of mold exposure is going to require aggressive public education campaigns on the health risks associated with mold exposure,” she indicated. “Educating the public will perhaps make them think twice about cutting corners when it comes to mold remediation in homes and businesses.”
Moss continued, “As it pertains to babies, the medical literature documents quite clearly that early exposure to mold during infancy increases a child’s risk of developing asthma and other respiratory illnesses. This of course has long term implications for the health of these babies extending even into adulthood.
“With regard to older children, specifically in our population, there is a high incidence of asthma and mold is a notorious trigger. This puts our older kids at risk for missed school days, hospitalizations and a gradual decline in lung function if exposure persists.”
The CDC notes that mold grows well on paper products, cardboard, ceiling tiles and wood products and can also grow in dust, paints, wallpaper, insulation, drywall, carpet, fabric and upholstery.
Sudden discontinuation of medications
During our recent visit to flood victims in communities adjacent to Freeport’s downtown business district, several residents disclosed that stress, disrupted dietary options and sudden loss of funds created by Dorian’s aftermath had factored into their failure to be consistent with prescribed daily medications for their chronic illnesses.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), emergencies caused by disasters can lead to “an acute exacerbation or a life-threatening deterioration in the health of people with NCDs” (non-communicable diseases).
Elderly people, according to the WHO, are particularly vulnerable.
Complications for those with NCDs including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and hypertension can be caused by forced displacement, degradation of living conditions and interruption of care which includes the interruption of power supply, the WHO notes.
In a recent interview with Perspective on this issue, Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands said vehicles are being accessed so as to facilitate a transition to home care in Grand Bahaha and Abaco.
“NCD management in a disaster is a big issue,” he acknowledged. “We have made sure that clinical services are readily accessible, but we are mindful that you also have to take healthcare to the community.
“We expect an uptick in strokes and heart attacks and other issues; in short, the work will increase.”