Despite all of the modern conveniences we enjoy in America, the safety of our nation’s food and water supplies remains a consistent problem due to contamination from nasty strains of bugs like Escherichia coli, better known as E. coli bacteria.

Most strains of E. coli are common and relatively benign, especially those living in the guts of animals and humans. However, the most popular strain of E. coli — Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) — seems to find its way into our food and water more often these days due to unforeseen contamination.

More than 250,000 Americans are sickened annually as a result of contact with the STEC form of E. coli, according to the CDC.

Many who come in contact with this sickening kind of E. coli usually suffer from watery diarrhea, gas and severe abdominal cramping, but it passes within 10 days.

Yet one very serious health problem related to E. coli infections reported in previous food outbreaks, hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), can destroy red blood cells and may lead to kidney failure if not treated quickly and appropriately.

E. coli concerns have risen to new levels over the past few weeks with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma slamming into the coasts of Texas and Florida, respectively, destroying homes and property along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts (with more on the way).

How bad is it?

Some Houston neighborhoods were slammed by E. coli contamination after rains from Hurricane Harvey flooded local sewage plants, according to reports in the New York Times and Houston Public Media.

In fact, area scientists measured E. coli levels in one Houston home exceeding 135 times beyond what’s considered safe.

The problem: Warm temperatures coupled with stagnant water that’s trapped inside a flooded home and tainted with sewage can become a safe haven for bacteria multiplying at a much faster rate than it would outdoors, creating massive health problems.

The same kind of damage with sewage overflows has been reported all over the Florida peninsula, with spills reported from Miami to Jacksonville due to Hurricane Irma, according to New Republic.

The bad bugs swimming in Florida waters may have exposed residents to noroviruses that people encounter on cruise ships and other nasty pathogens, such as giardia and salmonella, says Dr. Valerie Harwood of the University South Florida.

Unfortunately, your town doesn’t have to be hit by a hurricane to have a problem with E. coli. Residents of Atlantic Beach, N.C., recently experienced this problem when local officials ordered a boil order for 24 hours due to E. coli found in a local water sample, according to Food Safety News.

And, that’s just one bacteria…

Exposure to Vibrio vulnificus from coastal flooding via hurricanes also creates the rare but deadly possibility for harmful infections that harm those with open wounds who could lose limbs or even die.

In fact, open wounds and scrapes infected with Vibrio can worsen in just 10 hours to the point that limbs may require amputation, experts say.

Take these steps to protect your health

If you live in the harm’s way of natural disasters like hurricanes or severe storms that flood your home, there are simple steps you can take to protect the health of you and your family.

  • If you have an open wound, avoid any exposure to flood waters, and seek medical attention quickly if it worsens.
  • Wash your hands with warm, clean water and plain soap if you have to return to your home to do repairs or pick up clothing, especially before meals. Skip antibacterial cleaning products that create opportunities for more powerful superbugs.
  • Don’t allow your children to play with toys that have been floating in dirty floodwater, until they have been disinfected.
  • Are you current on your vaccinations? Call your doctor!
  • Don’t skip taking a daily probiotic, ideally one containing multiple strains of beneficial bacteria like EndoMune Advanced Probiotic, as it gives your immune an extra boost that protects your health from E. coli and other nasty bugs.