Environment & Science

As families return to Montecito homes, disease threat from mud persists

Montecito architect Marc Phillips' garage was inundated by flooding that took out a dozen homes nearby. Santa Barbara County Public Health officials advise caution to avoid contact with the mud, which can have a high level of bacteria.
Montecito architect Marc Phillips' garage was inundated by flooding that took out a dozen homes nearby. Santa Barbara County Public Health officials advise caution to avoid contact with the mud, which can have a high level of bacteria.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

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Montecito residents who had been evacuated from neighborhoods overrun by mud Jan. 9 were cleared to return home this week. But families returning to intact houses might still have to deal with a layer of mud in their yards, and unhealthy substances the mud picked up in its path.

The mud carried sewage from septic tanks, and petrochemicals like gasoline stored in flooded garages.  Santa Barbara County Public Health officials urged residents to take safeguards against being contaminated by mud. Among the warnings are to avoid skin-to-mud contact and to not breathe dust from the drying mud.

Ojai lawyer Trevor Quirk has been volunteering to help Montecito residents dig out, and he’s taking care not to touch the mud, using "Gloves masks, rain boots, sanitizing very well, taking precautions," he said.

The public health department also issued extensive warnings to people coming into contact with the mud, from contractors digging out yards to families whose homes were intact but dealing with a layer of the muck in their yards.

"We know that there's high bacteria levels and bacteria, and I’m more concerned about bacteria than anything else, quite honestly," said Public Health Department Deputy Director Susan Klein-Rothschild. "So I would recommend kids not play it."

Santa Barbara County hired an outside lab to test for potentially harmful substances in the mud. Test results released Jan. 18 found high levels of fecal bacteria that likely came from ruptured septic systems and pipes. The bacteria, including harmful E. coli bacteria were detected in all ten mud areas sampled. The tests also found gasoline, diesel or motor oil in nine of the ten samples.

The amounts of heavy metals like arsenic, barium, chromium, copper and lead in the soil were low enough that the testing results said they were likely a background level present in the soil, and not high enough for the mud to be treated as a hazardous material.

The test did not detect asbestos or PCBs, a probable carcinogen.

Swimming at many beaches was banned soon after the Jan. 9 mudflow due to high bacteria counts in the ocean water, with some beaches beginning to reopen as the bacteria levels return to normal. Santa Barbara County officials warned the public against eating raw seafood or shellfish that could have absorbed bacteria from the mud. Tests taken between January 11 and 20 showed elevated levels of bacteria. New tests are due out this week.

The Santa Barbara Public Health Department also put out a notice debunking a rumor that breathing in the dried dust from mud being deposited in landfills and on beaches could transmit the Hepatitis C virus.

Hepatitis C is a virus spread by contact with blood, said Dr. Charity Dean, Santa Barbara County’s Public Health Officer, so it could not be contracted by breathing dust from the drying mud.

Hepatitis A is spread through contact with fecal matter, so it is possible that people touching sewage-tainted mud could be at risk to get the virus. However, no cases of Hepatitis A have been reported, said Klein-Rothschild. A vaccination is available, but it takes two weeks to become effective.

“The likelihood for evidence of other forms of Hepatitis A or B and its transmission within the runoff is extremely slight,” she said.

Still, the health department recommended that people cleaning mud and debris get a tetanus booster shot if it’s been ten years since their last vaccination.