Water Damage: Cleanup and Your Health
by Shawn Gibbs, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Environmental, Agricultural, and Occupational Health
The recent flooding of the Missouri River will leave damage to homes for individuals to address. When returning to flood-damaged property, it is important to begin the cleanup in a way that will not endanger either your immediate or long-term health.
The immediate health issue to address is personal safety. Do not enter an unsafe structure, and do not begin recovery efforts until it is safe to return. Before beginning any cleanup activity, obtain enough personal protective equipment for everyone performing the cleanup, and make sure the equipment fits properly. Disposable N-95 masks are important to protect your lungs from bacteria or mold that will be in the air of flood-damaged homes, but masks should be disposed of anytime they are soiled. Disposable masks will not protect you from chemical fumes—if you are using chemicals, use an appropriate mask. Work gloves, goggles, long sleeves, and pants are a must for those conducting a cleanup, as they will reduce cuts and scrapes that could become infected. Wearing these items will make you warm, so you have plenty of clean, bottled water available in case your home’s water is unsafe to drink. Also, make sure that everyone is up-to-date on their shots, particularly for tetanus. Remember that personal protective equipment is not designed for children, so children should not participate in the cleanup process.
The long-term health issues associated with mold can be reduced by ensuring that a proper cleanup is done. If your home was flooded for longer than 48 hours, you will probably need to consult a professional company to conduct the cleanup. Begin any cleanup by drying your home, including removing any water-damaged items to help facilitate drying. Water-damaged walls and floorboards will need to be thoroughly dried, and drywall will likely have to be thrown away. All wet insulation, carpet, and similar items will also have to be thrown away.
If you are cleaning personal items, there will be some hard choices to make. Cloth materials can normally be cleaned by laundering them several times to remove the impact of the water. Many other porous items, such as couches, stuffed animals, papers, and some older pictures, will have to be thrown away if they have been in the water for longer than 48 hours. Remember, it is better to throw something away than have it become a source of mold in the future. Items that are non-porous can be cleaned with a dilute (one cup of bleach in five gallons of water) bleach solution, then thoroughly dried.
Helpful Web Resources Regarding Mold
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/mold/reenter.asp
United States Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov/iedmold1/i-e-r.html