Health Risks After Hurricanes

We hear a lot about the dangers of hurricanes when they are in a region, but very little regarding health risks after hurricanes. I thought it would be interesting to review all of the health risks in a blog.

Health risks during a hurricane

A lot of the health risks during a hurricane are directly related to the risks from the wind severity, the amount of rain per hour and the physical damage from the hurricane. The excessive wind can uproot trees and they may fall right onto a house. This happened in the beginning of hurricane Florence. The amount of rain that comes down in a short time frame can be astounding. It causes flooding, which together with the high wind speeds can make you lose your footing. There is flying debris, torn away pieces of wood and drywall that can become a hazard to any person. It is a hazard that could kill you right there. It is best to be out of the way of a hurricane, if you can at all. But you need to watch hurricane predictions on the Internet or the news, so you know what is going on long before the hurricane arrives. This gives you enough time to travel away from the danger zone. People who live on islands need to be particularly proactive, so that they get out of harms way in time.

Be safe from floodwaters

If you live in a low-lying area, it is safer for you to leave and go to a shelter before the hurricane hits. Otherwise you end up drowning. Being on top of your house in a hurricane is dangerous as the roof may fly off any minute from the force of the wind. You are also the target of flying debris, wood pieces and other flying objects.

Contaminated water is one of the major health risks after hurricanes

With hurricane Maria in 2018 it appeared in the first few days that only 16 to 18 people had died from the physical effects of the hurricane in Puerto Rico. But in the subsequent weeks and months people died en masse because of infections from contaminated drinking water. It is unbelievable that huge water supplies had been brought in by FEMA following the hurricane Maria, but it was not distributed to the people who needed it. The total death toll is now around the 3000 mark. FEMA calculated this by subtracting 13,000 deaths due to natural causes from the total deaths of 16,000. The difference is about 3,000 deaths, attributable to hurricane Maria.

Providing clean drinking water important

Providing clean drinking water should be the first priority following a hurricane. This will prevent that people get the typical water-born bacterial and viral illnesses following a hurricane.

One patient in Puerto Rico with chronic emphysema was on a breathing machine. The interruption of electricity as a result of hurricane Maria meant his death. Some people are so vulnerable that the interruption of electricity ends their life.

Communicable diseases from floodwaters

The WHO has brought out a fact sheet regarding communicable diseases from floodwaters. People need to be aware that floodwaters are contaminated and avoid them as much as possible. However, they also point out that unless you have bruises or cuts where bacteria from contaminated waters could grow the danger is smaller than generally believed.

Mold from water damage to houses

After hurricane Katrina in New Orleans 2005 there was a lot of mold growth in houses that were flooded. This caused an overwhelming odor that was difficult to cope with. Bleach water removes mold initially until a professional crew can clean it up at a later date. I mention this here because following a hurricane there will not be enough professional people around to help. Mold is particularly devastating for asthmatics and people with chronic respiratory conditions. These people need evacuation from such living environments until the house is clean from molds. Flare-ups of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease can be deadly. Under normal circumstances people with respiratory problems can manage, but these people are at a severe risk of dying from an aggravation of their underlying conditions. Hurricane Katrina will be remembered for this.

Living in destroyed homes

Often with a direct hit of hurricane the roofs of homes are missing. The hurricane ripped them off and they literally flew away. A home without a roof is prone to water damage from future precipitation. There is the danger of mouse and rat infestation. Birds can enter and partake in the leftover meals. Their droppings may contain contagious bacteria like salmonella causing typhoid fever. Builders  work hard and long hours; it can take months or years before life is normal again. It may be wiser to live with a relative for a few months until the house is in livable condition again. When electricity is restored and the water lines are functioning again, there may still be an issue about getting safe drinking water and uncontaminated water to have showers and baths. Also, without proper shelter there are risks of mosquitoes transferring communicable diseases. This happened in the Dominican Republic.

Malaria in the Dominican Republic

In September 2004 Hurricane Jeanne struck the Dominican Republic. Subsequently there was more flooding from heavy rainfalls. The end result was a mini-epidemic of 17 cases of malaria, because the flooded areas gave the mosquitoes more breeding ground to multiply. Fortunately no one died, as all the malaria cases responded to chloroquine and primaquine. But some patients had to be treated in the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital. As already mentioned there are other water born illnesses that can cause diarrhea, vomiting and fever. These people need to get immediate access to a hospital where the medical staff will rehydrate them intravenously. Otherwise they could die.

Health Risks After Hurricanes

Health Risks After Hurricanes


Hurricanes pose enormous problems for the communities where landfall occurs. Close to the eye of the hurricane are the worst structural damages to properties and trees. But even miles away from that there can be flooding due to excessive winds and rain. Most people are reasonable during the initial phase when the hurricane hits. This means they stay inside so they can protect themselves from the direct impact of the storm. But hurricanes can pull roofs off and people can get hurt.

Illnesses from contaminated water

Later there is a disruption of the electrical supply as well as the water supply. The restoration of the utilities may take days or weeks. Immediately you depend on fresh and clean water supply, and when you run out, there may not be enough fresh water available. Illnesses from contaminated water become a huge problem at that point. This is where a lot of mortality comes from in the aftermath of a hurricane.

If you can, it is wiser to escape this all by visiting a relative far away from the hurricane area. In this case you must leave well in time before the hurricane hits. You can check with the authorities when it would be safe to return home. At least you know that you have survived. Everything else can wait. You will gradually take care of it. But it may take a long time for things to return to normal.


Health Risks Of Night Shifts

One of the news stories in 2016 was about health risks of night shifts. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2000 that 15 million workers (16.8 % of the working population) were doing alternative shifts (night shift work mixed with daytime shifts). In 2016 they reported 14.8% were working alternate shifts. Among blacks, Asians and Latino Americans the percentage of working alternative shifts was higher, namely 20.8%, 15.7% and 16%, respectively.

Shift work is more common in certain industries, such as protective services like the police force, food services, health services and transportation.

Evidence of health risks of night shifts

1.There are several publications that showed evidence of health risks of night shift workers. Here is a random selection to illustrate the health risks of night shifts.A study from 2015 examined the sleep patterns of 315 shift nurses and health care workers in Iranian teaching hospitals. They found that 83.2% suffered from poor sleep and half of them had moderate to excessive sleepiness when they were awake.

2.This South Korean study examined 244 male workers, aged 20 to 39 in a manufacturing plant. Researchers compared blood tests from daytime workers to blood tests from night shift workers. They also obtained inflammatory markers like the C-reactive protein and leukocyte counts. Night shift workers had significantly higher values. The investigators concluded that shift workers have increased inflammatory markers. This is a sign of a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease in the future.

Higher mortality and higher cancer risk in nighttime workers

3. A Swedish study found that white-collar shift workers had a 2.6-fold higher mortality over a control group of daytime white-collar workers.

4. Another study compared night workers in the age group of 45 to 54 with daytime workers and found a 1.47-fold higher mortality rate in the night shift workers.

5.In a study from China 25,377 participants were included in a study that investigated cancer risk in males with more than 20 years of night shift work. They had a 2.03-fold increased risk to develop cancer compared to males working day shifts. Women with night shift work in this study showed no effect with regard to cancer development.

BMI and estrogen levels higher in women nighttime workers

6.A Polish study examined hormones and the body mass index (BMI) among 263 women who worked night shifts and 269 women who worked day shifts. When night shift workers had worked more than 15 years at nights, their estrogen levels, particularly in postmenopausal women were elevated compared to the daytime workers who served as controls. The BMI was also increased in the nighttime workers.

Risk for chronic lymphocytic leukemia higher in nighttime workers

7.Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL): a study in Spain showed that working for more than 20 years in rotating night shifts was associated with a 1.77-fold higher risk of developing CLL. The authors noted that melatonin levels in that group were much lower than in controls that worked only day shifts. Working in straight night shifts did not show higher risks of CLL compared to daytime workers.

8. In a Korean study from Seoul 100 female medical technologist who worked nighttime had their melatonin levels tested, which were compared to daytime workers.  They measured 1.84 pg/mL of melatonin for the nighttime workers compared to 4.04 pg/mL of melatonin in the daytime workers. The authors felt that this is proof that the diurnal hormone system has been disrupted. Altering the melatonin level also changes the circadian hormone rhythm.

Flatter cortisol curves at night in nighttime workers, also increased diabetes risk

9.A group of 168 female hospital employees doing rotating nightshift work in Southern Ontario hospitals were compared to 160 day workers. Cortisol production was assessed. Cortisol production in day workers and in shift workers on their day shift was similar. However, shift workers on their night shift had flatter cortisol curves and produced less cortisol. The authors felt that this disruption of cortisol production would explain why rotating night shift workers have a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases.

10.A Danish study with female nurses followed 28,731 nurses between 1993 and 2015. Researchers measured the incidence of diabetes in rotating nighttime nurses in comparison to the data from daytime nurses. Night shift workers had a risk between 1.58-fold to 1.99-fold when compared to daytime workers to develop diabetes. The risk for evening shift workers was less (between 1.29-fold and 1.59-fold).

Diurnal hormone rhythm behind health risks of night shifts

Your body has its own rules. It rewards you, if you sleep 7 to 8 hours during the night, but it will penalize you severely, if you turn it upside down. The reason is our built-in diurnal hormone rhythm. A peak of melatonin regulates sleep during the night. Melatonin is released by the pineal gland (on the base of the skull) when it gets dark outside. Daytime wakefulness regulates the release of the stress hormone cortisol from the adrenal glands. These two hormones inhibit each other, cortisol inhibits melatonin and melatonin inhibits cortisol. All the other hormones are also regulated according to the diurnal rhythm: testosterone is highest in the morning, human growth hormone is highest between midnight and 3 AM etc.

Adjustment of the diurnal hormone system

When you work daytime shifts, your diurnal hormone rhythm works just fine. But if you work nighttime shifts, your hormones have to adapt. This is very similar to traveling east or west where you cross several time zones. Your internal diurnal hormone system has to adjust to these changes. Typically it takes 1 day to adjust to a 1-hour time zone difference.

Rotating shift workers have the highest risk of getting sick

In people who work permanent night shifts, the hormone changes stay adjusted and there is no further switching. But most employers want to be “fair” to everybody, so they introduced the rotating night shifts. The publications above show that this is the worst thing you can do. It messes with your diurnal hormone rhythm, and some people never switch completely to the new hours worked. They don’t get enough daytime sleep because the kids are loud during the day etc. The rotating shift workers are running the highest risk of getting sick. The get cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, cancer, leukemia, and they have low levels of melatonin.

Health Risks Of Night Shifts

Health Risks Of Night Shifts


Shift workers working constant night shifts is less stressful than the more common rotating shift work. This is where you work night shifts for a period of time. Then the schedule switches to day shift, and you keep on rotating. The least health risks occur with regular daytime work. People exposed to rotating night shifts suffer from poor sleep. They have a higher risk of gaining weight, getting obese and acquiring diabetes in time. They are at a higher risk for heart attacks, strokes and cancer. All-cause mortality is about twofold higher than for workers who work day shifts.

The underlying problem seems to be a disturbance of the diurnal hormone rhythm. Normally this regulates our waking/sleeping rhythm and keeps us healthy. But with nighttime work melatonin production weakens, there is less cortisol production and hormone rejuvenation during rest periods suffers greatly. This weakens the immune system, allows cancer to develop and leads to chronic inflammation causing cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The remedy to prevent this from happening is to catch little naps whenever you can during the day. And, if at all possible, work daytime shifts permanently.


Overuse Of Tanning Can Point to Addiction

The use of indoor tanning facilities and tanning beds has become popular over the years. Many individuals use tanning in preparation for a vacation in sunny climates, but an overwhelming number flocks to tanning booths in order to preserve this summer tan. Despite all cautioning from dermatologists, tanning salons have their steady clientele. While the occasional use may be no reason for alarm, steady usage sheds a different light on the”artifical sun”.
Tanning dependence has been found to be common in young adults, as a survey of 400 college student revealed. The behavior can be predicted by certain demographic and behavioral variables. Initially the motivation for tanning is the enhancement of appearance, but often those who use tanning facilities frequently report that it contributes to enhance their mood and help with relaxation and socializing. There was also a disregard for warnings about health risks of the practice. Dr. Carolyn Heckman, PhD of Fox Chase Cancer Center in Cheltenham,Pa. and her colleagues reported that these behaviors are commonly reported by individuals with other types of dependencies. In this respect excessive use of tanning has similarities to other behavioral disorders such as obsessive compulsive behavior and eating disorders, which has given it the nickname “tanorexia”.

Overuse Of Tanning Can Point to Addiction

Overuse Of Tanning Can Point to Addiction

The population profile showed that most of the tanning dependent individuals were female, and the highest group was white with a medium skin type, as opposed to fair and darker skinned individuals. Those who were doing the most sunbathing in summer and had the highest rates of sunburn also were the most tanning dependent. They were also the ones who used the least amount of sun protection. Smokers had the highest level of tanning dependence, whereas obese individuals had the lowest one. The highest proportion showed up in the female population. Males did not seem to be that interested in tanning.
The research is relevant for health professionals when it comes to teaching patients about skin cancer prevention and education about sun protection. It also points to possible relationships to other addictive disorders.

More information about skin cancer: http://nethealthbook.com/cancer-overview/skin-cancer/

References: 1. http://www.skincancer.org/content/view/317/78/ 2. Am. J. Health Behav. 2008;32:451-64

Last edited November 5, 2014