Compromised water brings disease first, then mosquitos

John EastonJohn Easton
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

On the top concerns when clean water infrastructure fails.

“If they’ve had failures, whether at treatment plants or within the distribution or collection system itself, you can get contamination of drinking water or have sewage escaping into the environment, neither of which is good from a health perspective.”

“We’re not in a developing part of the world where you start worrying about cholera and typhoid fever – big killers from 100 years ago – because we have relatively good access to medical care. But, when you have people walking around in water that might be contaminated with sewage, there is a higher risk for infection of the skin and so forth. There can also be viruses that get aerosolized from the dirty water and that’s not good.”

On the likely health impact of drinking untreated water

“It’s pretty likely you’re going to be exposed to a pathogen – bacterial, viral or protozoan – if you drink untreated water. Most of those things cause some kind of gastroenteritis, something in your gut that causes vomiting and diarrhea. It’s reasonably treatable, but not something you’ll want repeated exposure to.”

“Then there’s the issue with chemical spills. That whole area has a lot of chemical plants and oil refineries and there can be organic compounds that aren’t good for you. If you consume a whopping dose, you’ll feel toxic effects immediately, and potentially face a long-term increased risk of cancer.”

“Hopefully, nobody is relying on this untreated water. If it smells bad and looks bad, don’t drink it.”

On the region’s long-term health concerns

“Long term the concerns are less about people getting into water and contacting sewage and more about mosquitos. With standing water likely to remain everywhere for a long time, that’s wonderful for mosquitos. So the things you think of with mosquitos, like West Nile virus and Zika, you’re going to have more problems with those than you would otherwise. Wear your DEET, wear long pants and don’t go outside with exposed skin, and get rid of standing water on your property as best you can. Mosquitos don’t travel far – their average range is 100 feet – so if you get bit by a mosquito, it’s likely living nearby.”

Easton is a lecturer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at SMU

Can discuss:

  • water-born pathogens
  • environmental engineering
  • water infrastructure security