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After the Mudslide, Protecting Public Health


Montecito Mudslide

First responders dig through debris in Montecito on Jan. 11, 2018. Santa Barbara County Public Health officials are urging the public to take precautions to protect against disease. (Tony Morain/Direct Relief)

The storm and mudslide event caused extensive damage. As a result, unknown amounts of potentially hazardous chemicals and untreated sewage were swept into the mudslide debris that flowed through impacted areas. As people return to these areas and begin the difficult task of cleanup and recovery, they are advised to take certain measures to protect their health. They are also advised to be alert to certain health conditions associated with natural disasters, disaster cleanup, and repopulation of impacted areas.


  • Rashes – Skin rashes can develop as a result of exposure to hazardous chemicals, microbiological pathogens, poison oak oils, and other substances present in mudslide debris. Rashes may appear anywhere on the body, but particularly on skin exposed to unsanitary mud or water for extended periods of time. Be alert to new rashes and seek medical evaluation if they are painful, enlarging, or appear infected.
  • Immersion Foot Syndrome, or Trench Foot – This condition is associated with foot exposure to cold, damp conditions for extended periods of time, particularly in unsanitary mud or water. The skin on the foot becomes boggy and wrinkled, may turn red or blue, and may have a foul odor. Blisters and open sores can give way to secondary infections with bacteria or fungi. Seek medical evaluation if these symptoms develop. Immersion Foot Syndrome can be prevented by keeping feet warm and dry and wearing good water-proof foot protection. Foot checks at the end of each work day are important to identify early signs of this condition.
  • Injuries – Be alert to hidden dangers within mudslide debris as these can cause serious injuries or falls. Cleanup in areas severely impacted by the storm is best done by professionals equipped with the proper protective gear and tools. If you sustain an injury, do not delay in seeking medical evaluation.
  • Wound Infections – Be alert to scrapes or scratches that could become infected after exposure to mudslide debris. Symptoms include redness, swelling, tenderness, warmth or discharge from the wound. If these develop, seek medical evaluation. Prevent wound infections by applying a small amount of antibacterial ointment to any open wounds before beginning cleanup work each day. Check wounds at the end of each day, and keep them clean by washing with soap and warm water.
  • GI Illness – Raw sewage that may have mixed into mudslide debris could contain pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and parasites which can cause illness if ingested. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and fever. Seek medical evaluation if these develop.


  • Tetanus – Those who plan to do cleanup in areas impacted by the storm should receive a tetanus booster if they have not been vaccinated for tetanus during the past 10 years. Tetanus is a serious illness caused by a Clostridium tetani, a bacteria present in dirt, mud, and manure.
  • Hepatitis A – This virus is spread through the fecal-oral route. Although Hepatitis A is a pathogen associated with exposure to feces or raw sewage, there have been no cases of Hepatitis A associated with exposure to mud debris after this storm event. The probability of this is low. Those seeking immunization against Hepatitis A should contact their healthcare provider and be aware that it takes 2 weeks to achieve immunity after the initial vaccination. Hepatitis A vaccination is a 2-shot series, with the first dose providing about 95 percent protection against the virus.
  • Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C – These are both blood-borne pathogens. They are not spread through the air. There have been no reports of these viruses associated with the mudslide event. Those seeking immunization against Hepatitis B should see their healthcare provider. There is no vaccine against Hepatitis C.


  • Consider Wearing a Mask When Working in Dusty Conditions – As the mud dries it may get swept into the air, causing dust which can be inhaled. This dust can be irritating to the lungs, and an N95 mask can be worn for respiratory protection.
  • Washing Soiled Clothing – Wash clothing soiled with mudslide debris in hot water with regular laundry detergent. These clothes should be washed separately from uncontaminated clothes and linens.
  • Follow all Boil Water Notices – Bring water to a rolling boil for at least 1 minute; let cool. If boiling water is not feasible, an alternative to disinfect water for personal hygiene is to use a bleach/ water mixture. For clear water, add 1/8 teaspoon (about 8 drops) of 5-6 percent
    unscented liquid household chlorine bleach to 1 gallon of water. Stir, then let stand for 30 minutes before using. For cloudy water, add ¼ teaspoon (about 16 drops) of 5-6 percent unscented liquid household chlorine bleach to 1 gallon of water. Stir, then let stand for 30 minutes before using.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – Use the right personal protective equipment for the task. Heavy work gloves, N95 masks, waterproof boots with steel toe and insole, safety goggles, and hardhats are important for heavy cleanup tasks. If working in or cleaning up mudslide debris, wear rubber boots, rubber gloves, and safety goggles.

For more information, see guidance from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s page on “Cleaning Up Safely After a Natural Disaster.”

(Editor’s note: This press release was originally published by the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department here.)

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