Soldiers in flood zone engage in germ warfare

The Canadian soldiers who have been assisting with sandbagging efforts in Ottawa are taking every precaution to prevent contamination.

Their enemy is E. coli, their weapons bleach and scrub brushes

Soldiers at Ottawa's Connaught Range disinfect army waders after a day in the flood zone. (Stu Mills/CBC)

At the Connaught Range near Shirley's Bay in west Ottawa, three soldiers are engaging with the enemy in hand-to-hand combat.

The weapon of choice in this battle: a plastic kitchen scrub brush normally applied to casserole dishes in the mess hall.

Their enemy is E. coli, a coliform bacterium commonly found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded organisms.

The worry is that as the Ottawa River overruns septic fields and sewer systems in the area, E. coli cells, which can survive outside the body for a limited amount of time, will mix with the water circulating around waders, boots and ungloved hands, and sicken the 700 or so soldiers helping with the flood effort here.

So far, the military says it's been winning the battle.

Army waders hang to dry in a heated building at Connaught Range. (Stu Mills/CBC)

A simple solution

Three large grey, Rubbermaid tubs sit on folding tables in the parking lot of a building on Brouillette Boulevard near the southwest corner of this sprawling training facility.

"It's a very simple solution," said Cpl. David Pickett.

In the first tub, dirty waders are scrubbed down with soapy water. They're then dunked in the middle tub and rinsed with clean water.

Finally, a third container containing one part bleach and 10 parts water is used to put the enemy out of its misery.

The clean equipment is then taken to hang dry in a building where a diesel-fuelled heater and fans have created a tropical environment.

"Hygiene is crucial," said Pickett, who hails from North Bay, Ont.

After they have been cleaned with soap and a mild bleach solution, soldiers hang the wet waders inside a heated building to dry. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Simple advice

The CFB Petawawa medical technician has training similar to that of a paramedic, and offers some simple advice to civilians who don't have decontamination stations of their own.

"Just shower at the end of every day. Make sure you're clean. Don't play in the water."

"To be honest, I'm not that worried," said Capt.James Bryan Fukakusa, the University of Ottawa-trained medical officer for operation LENTUS.

So far, the small field clinic at Connaught Range has dealt only with relatively minor injuries to the roughly 700 troops stationed here in tent-like shelters. It's been mostly sore backs, feet and hands, Fukakusa said.

"The kinds of things that I think a lot of Canadians are familiar with who have been working with sandbags — making them, putting them out into walls."

Capt. James Bryan Fukakusa enters the field clinic where injured soldiers receive medical attention. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Handwashing crucial

Those with cuts or blisters should keep their wounds covered and dry, he said. If there is pain or swelling, they should seek medical attention.

One of the greatest dangers is inattention: soldiers who have been working in the dirty water and take a break for food or drink without first washing their hands.

"You need to treat [the water] as contaminated," agreed Michael Ferguson, Ottawa Public Health's health hazards response unit manager 

OPH is directing anyone in the flood zone to consult a special web page.


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