In flood's wake, health threats loom

West Warwick, RI – "Between the sewage and the oil spills and the rest, you can really smell it in the air," Hayes says. "Doesn't seem that healthy, does it?"

His crew spent this past Monday inside the building, power washing and bleaching everything. Outside, most of the contaminated sludge had dried up; dust was blowing through the air.

Hayes says the potential effect the flooding could have on his health is not his primary concern right now.

"I probably won't think about that until I'm washing all the mud off myself," he says. "I'm not worried about that. I'm just worried about starting up my business again."

But Anne Marie Beardsworth with the Department of Health says business owners should also be thinking about keeping their employees and themselves safe and healthy. She says anyone coming into contact with sewage dust should probably wear a mask. She also suggests being careful with any clothes or boots caked in sludge.

"Take those clothes off before you go home because if you don't know what's in that sediment, you're bringing that into your house," Beardsworth says.

If the muck has been mixed with sewage, it can cause nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. Beardsworth says it's a good idea to assume anything that's touched the flood waters is contaminated. That's especially true for land near the Pawtuxet, where overwhelmed waste water treatment plants pumped raw sewage into the river.

"It could easily add up to a hundred million gallons that could have made its way to the river," says Joel Burke with the Warwick Sewage Authority.

Burke is happy to report his once submerged waste water treatment plant is up and running again, providing some filtering and sanitizing of the city's sewage. But that water still isn't as clean as he'd like it to be. That, combined with the millions of gallons of raw waste, has made parts of the Pawtuxet River unsafe. Burke says Rhode Islanders should avoid boating or even walking nearby for now.

"I think they should seriously consider staying away," he said. "The amount of bacteria in this river is sizeable."

But downstream from the waste water treatment plants won't be toxic for long. Less than a mile away, Robert Nero stands on the banks of the Pawtuxet on the Cranston/ Warwick line. The sun is shining and the river is flowing peacefully below flood levels.

"If you didn't know this area at all that well, you wouldn't realize what occurred," Nero says. "We had nearly 12 feet of water and things are pretty much back to normal."

Nero is the chairman of the Pawtuxet River Authority and a scientist with the Department of Environmental Management. He says pretty soon the water quality will be back to normal.

"These sorts of things, they don't have the long term effects people think they do," he says. "Sewage is an organic, degradable material. The river flushes itself fairly well."

Nero says parts of the Pawtuxet River upstream from the Natick Dam in West Warwick are already safe for boating. The Bay is repairing quickly too. In some areas, it's already safe to harvest shellfish. Robert Nero can't say for sure, but he estimates that the entire river will be safe within a month or so.

Nero's hoping at that point, Rhode islanders will take advantage of the water authority's canoe launch, an activity that under normal circumstances is good for your health.