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Gears Magazine | Dangerous Flood Waters
Other Articles - October/November - 2017

Dangerous Flood Waters

In 2006, I was in Biloxi, Mississippi, just a few short months after hurricane Katrina. The devastation was unbelievable and the recovery took years. Now, with hurricane Harvey and Irma, both Texas and Florida are in for the same fate.

This is a warning for all shops! In 2006, I wrote this article about septic shock caused by flood-damaged vehicles. This is a resubmission of that article.

The Warning

Shortly after returning from Mississippi, I received an e-mail from an ATRA Member with an article attached to it. I was floored by the article and, frankly, scared out of my wits!

This is a warning to all technicians and shop owners across the flood zones and anyone purchasing flood vehicles!

A firefighter in Mississippi recently died from septic shock contracted through a slightly scratched finger suffered while extricating a victim from a crashed car. The floodwaters in the southern regions tested at 50 times above the danger level for this type of toxin, which enters the bloodstream. Called sepsis, it spreads rapidly from just the tiniest break in the skin. It’s deadly and can be carried by a car into your bays.

The government is trying to crush all of the vehicles that were in the flood zone, but any vehicle looked at prior to December 6, 2005 was sent to auction. Flood vehicles that the owners were allowed to keep are all over the country and are for sale everywhere.

ATRA recommends that all technicians wear gloves and protect themselves at all times when working on any vehicle that may have been involved in the flood. Long sleeve shirts, long pants, gloves, and safety shoes, etc.; whatever it takes to keep you safe in the trenches. If an employee gets a cut or even the smallest scratch, disinfect the wound immediately and apply a bandage.

The article stated that soap and water won’t kill the bacteria; it’ll take a strong antiseptic cleaner. Shops should consider adding a disinfectant-type soap or add a disinfectant to the water supplied to the wash area.

Symptoms

If you experience redness or swelling, a rash, or back pain, get to the doctor and demand a blood test immediately. The illness is frequently misdiagnosed because its symptoms are similar to a multitude of other ailments.

The symptoms of sepsis can include:

  • Fever and shaking chills
  • Reduced mental alertness, sometimes with confusion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea in the presence of infection
  • Sometimes hypotension
  • Altered kidney or liver function in some cases

The normal symptoms of an infection shouldn’t last longer than five days, and a fever should be no higher than 103ºF. If the fever exceeds 103ºF with chills, confusion, or difficulty breathing, get to a hospital immediately.

About the Firefighter

The Mississippi firefighter died six days after receiving a “tiny cut” from the wrecked car. The doctor didn’t perform a blood test because it isn’t commonly done in these cases. He scratched his finger on the car while he was extricating someone at about 10 pm on a Monday. He applied disinfectant and an adhesive bandage to the cut.

Tuesday morning he felt a little sick, with flu-type symptoms. Wednesday he developed a rash on his back along with back pain. That afternoon he went to a doctor and received muscle relaxant and salve and was told to take it easy for a couple days.

Thursday he felt a little drowsy, which he thought was from the medication. By Friday, he was feeling better, going to the firehouse to catch up on paperwork. Saturday he collapsed at home and was rushed by ambulance to the hospital. He went into cardiac arrest in the emergency room but was brought back and scheduled for surgery Sunday morning. On Saturday afternoon he suffered another cardiac arrest and couldn’t be revived.

The autopsy reported that the patient was filled with septic infection. Once infected, the death rate from sepsis is 40% in healthy adults. In younger children and older adults, the probability of dying rises to 80%.

What You Should Know

The floodwaters from the southern area were loaded with toxins, such as raw sewage, E coli, petrochemicals, human and animal remains, hexavalent chromium, arsenic, and lead. If the waters from New Orleans were poured into a bucket and shipped elsewhere, it would have been labeled as a biologically hazardous material, similar to hauling nuclear waste.

Shop managers should explain the risks and preventative methods to technicians, who, in turn, should wear rubber gloves and other suitable protective wear. Employees should report any injury, no matter how slight. Flood vehicles do contain clues to their soggy past, and shops conducting repairs or offering pre-purchase inspections for their customers can spot several telltale signs:

  1. Use the vehicle identification number (VIN) to track the vehicle’s history through CarFax.
  2. Look at the seams and around the edges of windows for a high water mark or specks of dried mud.
  3. Check under carpets, floor mats, headliner cloth, and behind the dashboard for water stains, mildew, sand, or silt.
  4. If the weather’s hot, sniff around in the vehicle; the heat will bring back the musty smell.
  5. Check the carpeting and upholstery; recently replaced carpeting or upholstery may be a warning sign of flood damage.
  6. Check for mud behind the dash.
  7. Look under the hood for signs of oxidation. Pull back rubber boots around electrical and mechanical connections to search for rusting ferrous materials, copper parts with a green tinge, or aluminum and alloys displaying pitting or a white powder.
  8. Check the oil and other fluids for cloudiness indicating water contamination.
  9. Inspect for mud or grit in alternator crevices, behind wiring harnesses, and around the small recesses of starter motors, power steering pumps, and relays, along with hints of rust or flaking metal along the undercarriage that you wouldn’t expect in a later-model vehicle.
  10. See if all the switches and gauges are functioning properly.
  11. Try out the heater and air conditioner, turning them off and on several times. Look inside the vents for evidence of mud or water. Operate the lights, wipers, turn signals, cigarette lighter, and radio. Look for mud, silt, or grit residue in the trunk, spare-tire well, and in headlamp and taillight housings.
  12. Look for rust on screws in the console, glovebox, interior body panels, under the seats, or any other area moisture wouldn’t normally reach unless the car was immersed in water.

Hidden Danger

Insurance companies are planning to total the cars that were submerged by Harvey’s floodwaters, so you might think you’re safe; all the damaged cars will be off the market.

Not by a long shot.

First, that only applies to cars that were covered by insurance. Those without insurance could be cleaned and returned to the road.

But that’s not the end of the danger, because once a car is totaled, it ends up in a junkyard, to be stripped and recycled.

Why is that a problem? Because the parts stripped from those flood cars may also carry dangerous viruses. So that used transmission you bought could carry the sepsis germs.

If you rebuild the transmission and run the parts through your parts washer, it’ll probably be clean and safe. But if you install it used, that’s one more car with a dangerous infection waiting to happen.

And what about the car you’re working on now? Maybe you know it was never flooded, but if someone installed a used part, it may still carry the germs that could lead to sepsis. Which means that virtually every car that comes into your shop has the potential for causing a life-threatening infection.

Cut fingers have traditionally been one of the hazards of this business; something you wore as a badge of honor. A few days and it’d be healed and you’d be good as new. Today a scratch can be a death sentenced if you aren’t careful.

Take the time to be safe and stay healthy. Treat every scratch as if it could be life threatening, and don’t wait to see a doctor if you experience any symptoms of sepsis. Remember, now more than ever, the life you save may be your own.