Flood victims must deal with mold, other health issues

Flood victims may still be in shock, but health officials say they need to begin clean-up soon.

Mold, in particular, is a problem. It can cause coughing, wheezing and other nasal and throat conditions. People with asthma and allergies may be particularly susceptible, along with children and the elderly.

“By taking certain precautions, they can protect themselves from flood-related illness or injury,” Assistant Health Commissioner Aggie Leitheiser said. “Knowing what can and can’t hurt them is important.”

The Health Department’s Dan Tranter of the indoor air quality unit said mold probably is the most widespread health issue after a flood.

It is not just the water that causes issues, he said. “We assume the water contains sewage and other matter.”

In cases where river water flooded homes, Tranter said all porous materials the water touched should be thrown out.

Solid wood, plastics, metal and other non-porous items may be cleaned and kept.

“Particle board, we would recommend chucking it out,” Tranter said.

Cleaning may start before the water is gone, he said, but the work is not done until the water is out and all porous materials are tossed.

If it is not raining, Tranter suggested taking affected non-porous furniture outside to air out and dry “to salvage it if you can.” Solid wood can be cleaned and disinfected, and so can laminated items if the laminate has not peeled back.

In a flooded basement, solid wood used in stairwells, studs or the like can be cleaned. But dry wall, plaster, carpet and carpet pad are among the items Tranter said must be thrown out.

If clear water flooded a home, that could be saved, he said. Clear water would be from a broken water pipe (not a sewer pipe) or water that ran into a basement from the home’s yard.

Even if an item looks mold free, it may not be. Tranter said dry wall, for instance, needs to be examined from the front and back both. Often, mold can form out of sight and it may not be visible to the eye for days.

To eliminate mold from solid surfaces, such as studs and solid wood furniture, the first step is to take soapy water to it.

“Scrub very vigorously,” Tranter advised. “The scrubbing with soapy water is going to remove almost all the microorganisms.”

In most cases, that needs to be followed with using a bleach mixture, he added. For that, a quarter cup or half cup of bleach should be mixed in a gallon of water.

The bleach mixture should be allowed to dry without rinsing or wiping it off. However, Tranter said, bleach residue may be cleaned off once it is dry.

While cleaning off mold and applying bleach, workers should wear mask respirators and take other precautions not to inhale or touch the mold or bleach, he said.

The Health Department recommends an N95 or N100 type disposable respirator.

Tranter suggested using fans to remove air from the affected area. While bleach is not as bad as mold, it also can affect a person’s breathing.

State health, agriculture and emergency management officials say there are other health-related issues flood victims should know:

– If part of a fruit or vegetable plant that is used for food comes in contact with contaminated flood water, it cannot be harvested for human eating.

– People should assume private wells are contaminated if the well casing was under water. The well water should not be used for drinking or cooking until the water system is flushed, disinfected and tested.

– If flood water came within 50 feet of a well, it could be contaminated. If so, testing before drinking the water is advised.

– As people recover from the flood, they often use electric generators, grills and other gasoline, propane or charcoal devices. However, they could produce the colorless and odorless carbon monoxide, which kills more than 500 Americans a year, so such devices should not be used inside a building or near a window.

– Soft children’s toys in flood water should be thrown out, but hard ones such as those made with plastic could be cleaned and disinfected.

– A full freezer without electricity usually can keep food cold enough for two days; food in a half-full freezer may be good for a day. In both cases, the door must remain closed.

– A closed refrigerator without power can keep food cold four hours.

– Commercially canned foods with no damage are safe if labels are removed and the cans are washed and disinfected.

– Foods in paper, cardboard and other non-waterproof containers affected by flood water should be thrown out.

“When it comes to food safety during a flood, always remember one basic rule,” Leitheiser said. “If in doubt, throw it out.”

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