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Public health officials urge Aucklanders to stay out of flood waters

31 January, 2023

Interview by Milly Smyth, adapted by Stella Huggins

Listen to the full interview

Clean-up crew on site at Okahu Bay Landing, the morning after Friday's deluge. Image by Corey Fuimaono.

Viral videos have seen residents of Tāmaki Makaurau swimming and playing in flood waters. A lot of this content is framed as ‘making the most of a tough situation’- but public health experts are urging people not to enter flood waters if they can help it.

Dr Lucy Telfar-Barnard, senior research fellow from the department of Public Health at the University of Otago told The Wire “you need to treat [it] as though it’s sewer water. Because it will have sewage in it, and essentially dead animals and so on… don’t go swimming in it.” Telfar-Barnard is warning people that flood waters are not the same as ‘regular’ leaks. Entering flood waters puts you at risk of many illnesses, including Cryptosporidium (a parasite) or Campylobacter (a bacteria)- both of which cause gastrointestinal illness.

As well as those who are intentionally entering flood waters, Telfar-Barnard warns those who have no choice but to engage with the waters- “if it’s got into your house then you need to treat those areas as if they’ve had sewage water in them.” 

That means wearing gloves whilst cleaning, ensuring you’re using good detergents, and cleaning surfaces thoroughly. Absorbent materials should be disposed of, including building materials like GIB board and MDS (the material that many kitchen cabinets are made from). “Those things really need to be replaced because they can’t be effectively cleansed of that contaminated water.”

The main long-term health risk of a damp home is the risk of mould growing. Mould thrives in damp conditions, and can trigger respiratory problems, or cause them where they weren’t present previously. 

The clean-up process will differ for homeowners and renters. A tenant should let their landlord know about the extent of the damage, as replacing building materials isn’t something a tenant can do. Telfar-Barnard advises that “if you can’t enter the home without passing through areas that are contaminated with that wastewater, then you do have a good argument that the house isn’t able to be inhabited safely; and so that’s where if you want to give notice then you can. If it’s uninhabitable you only have to give two days’ notice, and you  don't have to pay rent.”

In terms of future-proofing for similar events, she recommends having extractor fans in enclosed areas like kitchens or bathrooms, having openable windows. Additionally, be mindful of floor coverings you install.

Overall, the message from a public health perspective is very clear: stay out of flood water if you can, and tread with caution during clean-up.


Public interest journalism funded by New Zealand On Air