After flood waters recede come fears of bacteria

With rain by the buckets flowing over every piece of the Kaua‘i landscape in the past few days, and cleanup underway, the focus for some turns to possible bacteriological contamination, which can take up to two weeks to surface, and even longer to successfully battle.

As floods inundated Kaua‘i streams and even the sewers in some Westside towns, questions arise, like what’s in the water, and what does one do if they have come into contact with the runoff.

The easiest way not to get sick from possibly polluted storm water is, obviously, to stay out of beaches, streams, and puddles that are contaminated with the brown water, health officials said.

While the storm closed both Kalapaki Beach and some Westside beaches thanks to sewage spills, other Kaua‘i beaches affected by storm water can possibly make people sick as well.

While storm water can contain harmful micro-organisms (pathogens) and other harmful pollutants from overflowing cesspools or septic tanks, and animal feces flowing into storm drains, excessive storm water can also contain sewage from overflowing manholes or chemicals from polluted runoff from commercial and industrial facilities.

Westside residents reported dead pigs and dogs, even a refrigerator, floating seaward down the Waimea River after the heaviest rains last weekend.

The most common sickness associated with freshwater runoff is gastroenteritis, which includes upset stomach and diarrhea.

“They’re just an acute illness, not a long-term risk,” said Jason McKnight, education specialist with the Kaua‘i District Health Office of the state Department of Health.

But other, more potentially serious bacteriological diseases are possible as well, McKnight said.

Leptospirosis, found in animal feces, is one disease that “proliferates after the occurrence of flooding,” McKnight said.

The bacteria is already found in the ground from many animal farms, he said, but the rain allows it to travel. “Rainfall saturates the soil, the soil releases the leptospirosis (bacteria) and goes into the surface water,” he added.

And although it’s usually a freshwater disease, beaches near river-mouths can be at-risk, McKnight said, when the runoff is high and the water is muddy.

Leptospirosis usually enters the body through an orifice, like ears, nose or mouth, but can also be transmitted through a open cut.

The most common symptom is a persistent, severe headache, he said. It can take from two days to three weeks to develop in a person’s system. Treated cases on Kaua‘i range from 10 to 25 a year in number, McKnight said, but more, less-serious cases likely go undetected.

While it can be fatal, leptospirosis, McKnight said, is treatable with antibiotics, and it’s extremely rare that the bacteria takes a life.

“You can get severely sick and miss two to three weeks of work,” McKnight added. “In many cases, hospitalization is also required.”

Another bacteria that occurs in animal feces that can be passed through muddy water is giardia. The less-common bacteria is strictly orally ingested, said McKnight.

It takes about a week to develop, and also involves diarrhea, stomach cramps and nausea. The non-blood-borne pathogen gets stuck in the intestinal tract, and needs to be killed with medication, McKnight added.

The moral of the story, McKnight said, is to stay out of muddy water, and to use treated water for all a person’s home needs.

Tom Finnegan, staff writer, may be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or


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