The Impact of Flooding on Human Health in the UK

Overflowing manhole cover.      (Ian Francis/Shutterstock.com)

According to a recent UK Public Health Report, ‘It is not only your property and possessions that can be damaged by flood waters – flooding can also have lasting impacts on your health and wellbeing.’ Such impacts include long-term physical and mental health damages.

As a result of being fast-flowing, flood waters are likely to be contaminated with bugs, so along with risks of drowning, there are additional risks of injury and disease for anyone coming into contact with it. For example, raw sewage coming into homes raises the possibility of unpleasant gastrointestinal infections. Human sewage can mix with flood waters through overflowing drains, septic tanks and toilets. Flood waters are often mixed with animal waste as floods wash through farmlands. Such polluted waters frequently cause diarrhoea, vomiting, stomach cramps and even death. Additionally, according to the AA, a third of flood-related deaths are a result of drowning in a vehicle.

In addition, carbon monoxide poisoning – a silent killer – can be unleashed through flooding. The pumps and generators employed to help dry out buildings can give out gases with potentially lethal carbon monoxide poisoning if used incorrectly.

The mental and emotional health impacts are harder to quantify, but are no less devastating. Flood victims experience understandable stress and distress, not just from the effects of the immediate flooding, but also the strain of dealing with the after-effects of flooding – for example:

  • the endless and exhausting deep cleaning required;

  • the emotional effects from the loss of precious pets and irreplaceable sentimental belongings such as photos and other personal items;

  • the stress of dealing with insurance claims and local authorities, water boards and other agencies, particularly if they are unhelpful and unsympathetic; and

  • house prices falling, insurance rates rising, or homes becoming uninsurable or uninhabitable.

Flood victims can also suffer years of related mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), grief, trauma, anxiety and depression and several other debilitating effects that can persist long after the initial problems of flooding have been resolved.

Victims' loss of their homes through being made temporarily homeless and displaced also impact their daily routines, study and work, and include the stress of being separated from family and friends. This can affect all people, regardless of age – children and young people are equally vulnerable. Longer-term mental, emotional and physical health impacts on individuals include problems such as separation anxiety; sleep disturbance; and behavioural problems, including becoming withdrawn, developing aggressive tendencies, bed-wetting, and addiction or overreliance on habit-forming substances as coping mechanisms. These can also place inordinate strains on relationships and communities.

Damage to property is bad enough, but the lack of sleep, security and safety; the endless exhaustion from having to pump out water and sewage, trying to salvage whatever is savable; trying to come to terms with the loss of what is irretrievably damaged or just washed away; having to have everything decontaminated and dried; needing walls cut back and re-plastered, carpets and floors redone; repairing damaged drains; deep cleaning and replacing items damaged by water or raw sewage: the after effects and impacts on health and well being can last years, including due to years of bearing financial costs, debt and worries.

Whether too much, or too little, or unsafe, problems with water result in loss of life –whether from drowning, fatal injuries, food shortages, or deadly water-borne diseases. According to a UN Water report, ‘240 babies die every hour from unsafe water’.