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Q&A: What lives in floodwater?

August 28, 2017

ASU environmental microbiologist discusses what health dangers those in Hurricane Harvey-hit region should be aware of

Hurricane Harvey, still stalled in the Gulf Coast region, has poured more than 20 inches of rain over the Houston area since Aug. 25.

ASU Now spoke with Morteza Abbaszadegan, an Arizona State University professor of environmental microbiology and engineering, about the composition and safety of floodwaters and what to do after the floodwater recedes. Abbaszadegan is the founding director of the National Science Foundation Water and Environmental Technology Center at ASU. His research expertise is in health-related water microbiology, pathogen removal, water quality in distribution systems, and techniques to detect viruses, bacteria and parasites in water environments.

Question: What should Houston-area residents be aware of before entering floodwater?

Answer: One of the biggest issues after a flood of this magnitude is microbial pathogens. Some residents will have no choice but to wade into floodwater. And, if that’s the case, they should focus on safety and hygiene. Don’t drink the water, don’t touch your mouth after your hands have been in the water, don’t cook with the water. Boiling water before you drink it will help. Drying supplies that have been soaked also will help.

Also, if you need to get in the water, use visual cues to determine how contaminated the water near you may be. You might see dead mice or rats, or you may see fecal matter floating in the water. Try not to touch any of those materials.

Q: What microorganisms are in floodwater, and how do they get there?

A: We know wastewater has a very high number of disease-causing microorganisms, such as salmonella, rotavirus and cryptosporidium. There also is pathogenic E. coli. You also will find various chemicals and contaminants. Some people don’t realize the extent of what is mixed into floodwaters, and many may think they are just seeing rainwater. That is not the case.

When a flood overwhelms wastewater treatment plants, there will be overflow to different parts of the city and community. In normal situations, we don’t get exposure to wastewater because it is delivered to sewage lines and then to treatment plants. It is treated and then discharged. In floods of this magnitude, you will find raw sewage overflowing and exposing people to a number of pathogens.

Q: What happens when the water recedes?

A: The biggest issue will be mold and fungi, which grow about four to seven days after the water recedes. Many types of cellulose materials, including plywood, provide enough nutrients for fungi and mold to grow at fast rates. And, Houston, with its high level of humidity and warmth, provides an environment that helps microorganisms such as penicillin and other toxin-producing molds grow at a faster rate.

Q: Are certain populations more vulnerable than others?

A: Yes, anyone very young, very old or sick. Many people saw the photo of residents in a nursing home sitting in waist-deep waters. Nursing-home residents often have weakened immune systems due to age or illness. If the residents in the photo were to pick up these microbes, they are more susceptible to illness.

Q: How can floods of this magnitude affect a region’s water sources?

A: There are source waters, such as rivers, where cities may take water, treat it and then distribute it. Due to the floods, the source water quality can change significantly. If that’s the case, the source water may get a higher load of microorganisms because of an influx of untreated wastewater and runoffs from the soil that will be washed into rivers. Then, residents would have an issue with drinking water and some people may get sick.

Public officials will monitor this. But if residents are concerned, they can boil their water before they drink it and use bottled water if it is available. Residents also can pay more attention to personal hygiene, and make sure to wash their hands often. 

Top photo: Floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey fill the streets of a neighborhood in League City, Texas. Photo courtesy of Chuck Pliske

Leslie Minton

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ASU grad student's project strengthens bond between baby, parent

ASU grad student's prize-winning project bolsters parent-baby bond through play.
August 29, 2017

Toddler & Infant Parent Kit, which uses attachment-theory concepts, wins $10,000 prize in Halle Foundation contest

Rolling a ball to a baby can be adorable fun, but it’s also a way to build a crucial bond that can affect the child’s emotional growth.

Play is an important part of creating an emotional bond between a baby and a parent or caregiver, and an Arizona State University graduate student has created a kit of items to foster that connection, based on the concepts of attachment theory.

Eric Henley won $10,000 for his “Toddler & Infant Parent Kit” submission to the Infant Development Prize contest sponsored by the Diane & Bruce Halle Foundation. The contest, held last month, featured five finalist teams, and another ASU team came in second. Henley is studying marriage and family therapy in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at ASU.

Eric Henley

The contest required the entrants to create a development kit suitable for children from birth to 36 months that cost $125 or less, including the container. Henley perused Amazon to select the items he thought would make parent-baby interaction fun and effective. When he became a finalist, he gathered the items together, put them into a clear plastic bin and shipped them to the foundation.

Henley’s project was driven by attachment theory, a psychological model that addresses how babies respond to the presence, or lack of, caregiver attention.

“So when I was choosing books, I wanted to make sure I was helping with the linguistic development but also that attachment between the parent and child,” he said. “What we notice in the clinical setting is when you’re angry, there are a lot of feelings underneath that — it might be fear, it might be anxiety, it might be disappointment.

“So I chose books that had to do with feelings and emotions at that level,” he said, so parents could build a lifelong relationship that’s open to talking about feelings.

At the presentationThe second-place team consisted of family and human development doctoral students Bobbi Bromich and Kenton Woods, also in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics., Henley showed a video clip of how the lack of response from a parent triggers an emotional meltdown by a baby, and he explained how prolonged emotional disconnection can trigger a “distress response” pattern that can continue throughout life. Babies are dependent on that positive interaction, and deprivation can activate the same part of the brain that registers physical pain.

Play is one way to strengthen that bond. So Henley’s infant-development kit included stacking cups, balls, puzzles, books, coloring books and an interactive stuffed animal. The items addressed four development areas: social and emotional, language and communication, cognitive thinking and problem solving, and movement and physical activity.

He also created a research-based resource guide with information about expected behaviors at different age levels and a milestone checklist.

Henley drew inspiration from his own fatherhood and told the judges that he wished he'd had the kind of information he had now so he could have acted more intentionally.

“I definitely have all those memories to look back on,” he said.

Here are some items in Henley’s prize-winning infant development kit and the ways parents or caregivers can use them to help babies and toddlers: 

Items in Eric Henley's "Toddler & Infant Parent Kit" include (from left): Eric Carle Matching Game by Wonder Forge, $9.62; Infantino Textured Multi Ball Set by Infantino, $7.96; and The First Years Stacking Up Cups by The First Years, $3.99. All items available at

If your child is 2 months old: Hold one of the cups above your baby’s head and encourage her or him to reach for it.

If your child is 4 months old: Provide safe opportunities for your baby to reach for the balls by placing them at various distances from your baby.

If your child is 6 months old: When he drops a cup on the floor, pick it up and give it back. This game helps him learn cause and effect.

If your child is 9 months old: Hide the cards under objects and have your child find them.

If your child is 2 years old: Kick a ball back and forth with your child. When your child is good at that, encourage her to run and kick.

Books in the kit include (from left): "The Way I Feel" by Janan Cain, $9.27, "The Way I Act" by Steve Metzger and Janan Cain, $8.60, both published by Parenting Press; and "Happy Hippo, Angry Duck: A Book of Moods (Boynton on Board)" by Sandra Boynton, $3.45, published by Little Simon. All are available at

If your child is 6 months old: Repeat your child’s sounds and say simple words with those sounds. For example, if your child says “bah,” say “bottle” or “book.”

If your child is 18 months old: Describe your child’s emotions. For example, say, “You are happy when we read this book.”

If your child is 2 years old: Do not correct your child when he says words incorrectly. Rather, say it correctly. For example, “That is a ball.”

If your child is 3 years old: Talk about your child’s emotions and your own. For example, say, “I can tell you feel mad because you threw the puzzle piece.” Encourage your child to identify feelings in books.

Items in the "Toddler & Infant Parent Kit" include "Alex Toys Little Hands Learn to Dress Monkey," $20.59, and "Alex Toys Little Hands First Scribble" coloring book, $11. Both are available at

If your child is 1 year old: Ask your child to label body parts on the monkey.

If your child is 2 years old: Ask your child to help with the zipper, buttons, snaps and ties.

If your child is 3 years old: Give your child paper, crayons and coloring books. Color and draw lines and shapes with your child. My First Scribble has excellent ideas to get you started.

Top photo courtesy of

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News