North Carolinans could face weeks toxic sludge and contaminated drinking water even after Hurricane Florence has passed.
With rainfall expected to reach three feet, the parts of the state could soon be awash in everything from coal ashes to pig manure and even nuclear waste from flooded sites.
The slush and all the fecal matter and toxins it may contain will be liable to seep into farm soil, groundwater and wells.
Daily Mail Online breaks down the health threats that may lurk long after the storm has passed.
Even after Hurricane Florence has made landfall in North Carolina and the storm has died down, three feet of rain, plus storm surges, could lead to flooding and water contamination
Winds up to 130 mph and a 13-foot storm surge are due to slam into North Carolina in the coming hours.
Though the damage inflicted by the storm itself will undoubtedly cost the state billions and destroy homes, filthy flood waters have the potential to sicken even more people.
North Carolina, several other US states and territories and countries including Japan have seen the horrors that floods can release into the water before.
‘It’s an issue that’s kind of behind the scenes and undetected,’ says Dr Neill Grigg, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Colorado State University.
‘For example, in the Puerto Rico aftermath, initially there were 20 deaths reported. Now the toll is 3,000.’
Dr Grigg says that populations affected by hurricanes – especially those most vulnerable, like children, the elderly and disabled – take a series of hits that slowly drive up death tolls.
‘You have people being injured, and then they can sometimes sustain another accident, and it takes awhile and weakens them further … this kind of thing is pretty endemic with flooding,’ says Dr Grigg.
‘It’s just gigantic. It’s not nearly as talked about as the near-term losses, like people losing their homes and belongings, but we often don’t see the illnesses long-term.’
Environmental contamination plays a significant role in that long-term fallout, and North Carolina’s industries make it especially vulnerable.
North Carolina has a $1.5 billion pork industry, but billions of pounds of manure could end up in the water following Florence, while pigs swim for their lives as they did after Hurricane Floyd
FLOOD WATERS COULD LIFT PIG MANURE FROM ITS PITS
Flood waters could lift pig manure from its pits
North Carolina is one of the nation’s largest pork producers, with a nearly $1.5 billion pig industry.
The animals produce 10 billion pounds of manure every year. That manure is stored in ‘lagoons,’ open earthen pits, into which tons of animal waste pours from the farms where the hogs are kept.
‘Hog, chicken, animal, and human waste all have a lot of different kinds of bacteria,’ says Dr Grigg.
‘The deadly one is E. coli, but all sorts can make you sick from contact as well as from drinking contaminated water.’
Earlier this year, E coli-contaminated water infected lettuce which in turn sickened some 200 people and even killed five in the US.
In 1999 and 2016, Hurricanes Floyd and Matthew, respectively, brought flood waters that overran a number of pig lagoons. It is unclear how many people may have been sickened in the aftermath of either storm.
The state has urged pig farmers to pump as much of the waste as possible from these lagoons and haul it away.
Andy Curliss, CEO of the North Carolina Pork Council told Bloomberg that the lagoons can accommodate an additional 25 inches of rain water – but meteorologists are anticipating up to 36.
Coal ash has spills have already contaminated water supplies in North Carolina. Flooding could lead to unsane levels of carcinogenic arsenic in drinking water
FINE COAL ASH DISSOLVED IN WATER BECOMES ARSENIC-LADEN SLUDGE
Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency found that coal ash ponds in North Carolina had contaminated drinking water there so badly that levels of toxic chemicals were more than 40-time the level the agency considers safe.
Like the pig manure much of this ash is stored in pools, where the water keeps it from blowing away.
But this means it is equally vulnerable to flood waters, which may dilute the sludge solution and carry ash far and wide.
‘Coal ash contains arsenic, and how that reacts with water can change the chemistry of the water, infecting source water even after it’s been treated,’ says Dr Grigg.
Plus, many North Carolinans have their own backyard wells which can be easily contaminated by flood waters.
Drinking water heavy with arsenic has been linked to all kinds of long term ailments, including an increased risk of cancer, blood vessel hardening, heart disease and nerve pain.
There are six nuclear power plants in North Carolina and severe flooding has the potential to ruin their cooling systems, leading to a meltdown that could release radiation
NORTH CAROLINA’S NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS COULD FACE MELTDOWNS AND LEAK RADIATION INTO THE ENVIRONMENT
North Carolina’s nuclear power plants could face meltdowns and leak radiation into the environment
There are five power plants in North Carolina, including the Brunswick plant, right along the southern coast of the state, which is expected to be hardest hit area of the state.
In past hurricanes, the structures have held strong, and officials insist they’ve only been made stronger since.
Nuclear power plants rely on water intake – often from rivers or other natural bodies of water for their cooling systems.
Yet, if the plant floods the water can ruin the electrical power systems that power their cooling mechanisms and this in turn leads to overheating.
If the core overheats, the plants ability to contain nuclear radiation may fail as well, releasing radiation into the environment, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Plus, ‘what might be stored around the plant that might be unique to that power plant gets into the flooding water,’ says Dr Grigg.
‘What might be stored around the plant that might be unique to that power plant might get into the flooding waters.’
In 2011, all three reactors of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan melted after a tsunami led to the shutdown of its cooling systems; the fear is that something similar could happen in North Carolina.
In the short term, the plant’s staff and surrounding communities had sufficient warning to get out of dodge before the meltdown.
These people may be at a sightly elevated risk of thyroid cancer, though are still in significantly less risk than those affected by higher doses of radiation from the Chernobyl incident.
The World Health Organization closely monitors food and water there for contamination. Radiation levels in some foods and in iodine were high in the early aftermath o the meltdown, but now ingestibles there seem to be safe.
But that was only a few years ago.
THE FUTURE EFFECTS ARE UNCERTAIN AND IMMEASURABLE
‘Anything radiation-related is going to be longer term – cancer-causing, etc,’ says Dr Grigg.
‘In the shorter term, it’s more acute gastrointestinal problems with bacteria, not only from contamination from river and source water, but even flooding out of the pipes around the system.’
These acute infections could continue for a week or even two, but it will be difficult to know how badly the flooding has affected public health until long after the storm ha spassed.
‘The acute phase is going to last a week or two, it takes a few days to get a water treatment back up and going,’ says Dr Grigg.
Then come the relief and recovery phases.
‘But one of the health issues is grief an mental health problems. A lot of deaths occur in the recovery phase, but it’s hard to say, it will just depend on the severity,’ Dr Grigg adDs.