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North Carolina Health Officials Concerned About Food and Water Safety Following Hurricane Irene

For release: Immediate    August 29, 2011
Contact: Julie Henry, 919-707-5053

RALEIGH – Citizens affected by Hurricane Irene must be very cautious about the safety of their food and water, State Health Director Dr. Jeff Engel warned today.

“Food left unrefrigerated is likely to be spoiled,” Engel said. “Water in public systems or private wells may be unsanitary and unsafe to drink.

Many local public water systems have issued boil water advisories in the wake of the storm. State officials warn that residents on public water systems should check with their water system and local Health Departments to see if there are recommendations to boil all water used for drinking, cooking, making ice, brushing teeth and washing hands. If advised, water should be kept at a rolling boil for at least three minutes before cooling and using it. If the water is cloudy, strain it through a clean cloth before boiling.

Private wells also may become contaminated. If the wellhead was covered by floodwaters, it should be tested by public health officials, even if the pump still works. Anyone with a private well that has flooded should contact their local health department for testing and advice. Health departments also can provide instructions for disinfecting flooded wells and springs. Disinfected water that is clear is safe for bathing.

Septic systems may not work until the water table has dropped below the septic tank. Anyone whose septic system has failed or been flooded should use extreme water conservation measures:

  • flush toilets only when necessary
  • take sponge baths
  • don’t let the spigot run while brushing teeth, shaving or cooking

Contact your local health department before doing maintenance or repairs on your septic system. Large systems will not start working again until the operator has inspected and restarted them. Homeowners are urged to keep children and pets out of water standing over the septic system.

Public health officials also urge caution with food that may be spoiled. Bacteria that can make you sick cannot be seen or smelled. Refrigerated food should be safe as long as the power is out for no more than four hours and the refrigerator temperature has not risen above 40 degrees. Any food that has been without refrigeration for more than two hours should be discarded. Frozen, partially-thawed food may be safe to cook or refreeze if it still contains ice crystals or has been kept at 40 degrees or below as measured by an appliance thermometer. Recooling or refreezing food that has been out of temperature too long will not make it safe to eat, so if there is any doubt, throw it out.

Do not eat any food that may have come into contact with flood water. Undamaged, commercially canned foods can be saved if you remove labels thoroughly, wash the cans, and then disinfect them with a bleach solution (1 cup bleach to 5 gallons of water). Relabel the cans, including the expiration date, with a marker. Food containers with screw-caps, snap lids and home-canned foods should be discarded if they have come in contact with flood water because they cannot be disinfected.

Discard wooden cutting boards, plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples and pacifiers if they have come in contact with flood waters because sanitization of these items cannot be ensured. Thoroughly wash and sanitize metal pans, ceramic dishes and metal utensils.

For other questions regarding health concerns about food, call your local health department or your county cooperative extension office, or call FDA’s toll-free information line weekdays at (888)SAFEFOOD or 888-723-3663.

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