Oso search teams face health risks from chemicals, bacteria

by: Linzi Sheldon Updated:


Oso, Wash. - As dedicated searchers at the Oso mudslide work to find victims and treasured family belongings, experts also caution they should be thinking about their health. Lt. Richard Burke, with the Bellevue Fire Department, said the mud includes sewage, household cleaning products, gas, propane, paint  and other hazardous materials.

Toxicologist Rosalind Schoof said the bacteria can lead to serious infections and stomach illness.

"It's going to be very hard when you're involved in that kind of activity to not accidentally ingest some of the muck that is on your skin," she said.

Other health experts told KIRO 7 potential problems also include E. coli and even Hepatitis A.

Burke said the decontamination process is not high-tech, but it is strict. It includes hosing and scrubbing down people with hot water and heavy detergent, as well as several more rounds of hosing down and hand washing.

"We're doing all of the steps that we can," he said. "It's not going to be perfect ... we're trying to protect people the best we can."

Medical crews don't have hepatitis vaccines, but they have started offering tetanus shots.

"We're worried about tetanus," Burke said. "There's just a lot of material out here where folks can get injured."

 Schoof said there is another danger somewhat similar to the toxic dust inhaled by first responders after 9/11. The drier weather could over time create dangerous dust from the mud.

"So you could get infections from it," she said. "But it can also carry chemicals into your lungs."

Responders are not currently using face masks but the Department of Ecology said several local fire departments have provided special equipment to track levels of potentially dangerous fumes and gases.