UT Scientist Says Flood Increases Disease Risk

KNOXVILLE — East Tennesseans face an increased risk of disease because of recent floods, a University of Tennessee microbiologist said Wednesday.

Dr. Ena Urbach, who studies bacteria in marine and freshwater ecosystems, said people who come in contact with floodwaters face a greater chance of getting cholera and other diseases.

“Cholera is probably the most famous of waterborne diseases,” Urbach said. “Certainly the rise of sanitary engineering was due, in the beginning, to a desire to control cholera. More recently, we have problems with diseases like Giardia, cryptosporidia, and coliforms, which are E. coli and its relatives.”

The National Weather Service has termed recent flooding in East Tennessee a “one-hundred-year occurrence.” Many communities received between three and six inches of rain in a 24-hour period.

Runoff from such extreme flooding often carries contamination from sewage or other unsanitary sources, Urbach said.

Public health officials in the region are testing water quality and may issue safety warnings, she said.

“If (health officials) find coliforms, which are easy to assay for, then they can declare those areas unsafe,” Urbach said. “Even if they don’t have evidence of the dangerous strains of E. coli, just the fact that they have identified E. coli suggests that there may be other sewage-borne diseases that might be present.”