Question of the Week

June 26, 2006


In the last year heavy rains, hurricanes, and flash floods have touched much of the country. As this is being written, the Eastern United States is being hit with record rains that are causing life-altering floods. As those who have gone through this before have already experienced: the rain will stop, the flood waters will recede, and life will return to "normal."

Unfortunately, before "normal" there is cleanup.

"Storm and flood cleanup activities can be hazardous. Workers and volunteers involved with flood cleanup should be aware of the potential dangers involved, and the proper safety precautions. Work-related hazards that could be encountered include: electrical hazards, Carbon Monoxide, musculoskeletal hazards, heat stress, motor vehicles, hazardous materials, fire, confined spaces and falls. ..."

Whether you are cleaning out your own home, the home of a loved one, or volunteering to help a stranger in need, it is easier to avoid (and prepare for) possible hazards if you know what to expect.

"The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) provides the following interim guidelines and warnings to flood cleanup workers. The hazards in flood waters are likely variable and can include sewage, household chemicals and cleaning solutions, petroleum products, hazardous industrial chemicals, pesticides, and flammable liquids. Workers must also be aware of dangers from physical hazards such as obstacles covered by flood waters (storm debris, depressions, drainage openings, ground erosion) and from displaced reptiles or other animals."

Knowing what to avoid is one thing. Knowing what to do (or even where to start) is another.

"* Flooded homes should be thoroughly dried out, a process that may take several days or weeks.
* Wet carpet and padding should be removed and discarded.
* Porous materials -- those that absorb water -- such as sheetrock, some paneling, fiberglass insulation, cellulose insulation, mattresses, pillows, wallpaper and upholstered furniture should be discarded.
* Sheetrock and other porous wallboards should be removed to at least 12 inches above the water line. Check for wicking, the upward movement of moisture to higher levels.
* Clean wall studs where wallboard has been removed and allow them to dry completely.
* Floors, concrete or brick walls, countertops, plastic, glass and other non-porous materials should be washed with soap and water and then with a solution of one to two cups of chlorine bleach to a gallon of water and allowed to completely dry. ..."

While working to clean and dry out a home it is important to think about the water... but don't forget the air.

"During a flood cleanup, the indoor air quality in your home or office may appear to be the least of your problems. However, failure to remove contaminated materials and to reduce moisture and humidity can present serious long-term health risks. ... Standing water is a breeding ground for microorganisms, which can become airborne and be inhaled. Where floodwater contains sewage or decaying animal carcasses, infectious disease is of concern. Even when flooding is due to rain water, the growth of microorganisms can cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. For these health reasons, and to lessen structural damage, all standing water should be removed as quickly as possible."

The water is out. The house is clean and dry. What about all that was in the home? How can you know what can be saved and what can't? Let's use the kitchen as an example...

"Food contact surfaces and equipment
* Discard wooden cutting boards, wooden dishes and utensils, plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples, and pacifiers that have come into contact with flood water. These items cannot be safely cleaned.
* Thoroughly wash metal pans, ceramic dishes, and utensils (including can openers) with soap and water, using hot water if available. Rinse, and then sanitize them by boiling in clean water or immersing them for 15 min. in a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water (or the cleanest, clearest water available).
* Thoroughly wash countertops with soap and water, using hot water if available. Rinse, and then sanitize by applying a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water (or the cleanest, clearest water available). Allow to air dry.
* Make sure to carefully clean corners, cracks and crevices, door handles, and door seals, in rooms that have been affected by flood water."

Now that you have clean surfaces, what about the food?

"* Do not eat any food that may have come into contact with flood water. If in doubt, throw it out.
* Do not eat food packed in plastic, paper, cardboard, cloth, and similar containers that have been water damaged.
* Discard food and beverage containers with screw-caps, snap lids, crimped caps (soda bottles), twist caps, flip tops, and home canned foods, if they have come in contact with flood water. These containers cannot be disinfected.
* Undamaged, commercially-prepared foods in all-metal cans or retort pouches can be saved if you remove the labels, thoroughly wash the cans, rinse them, and then disinfect them with a sanitizing solution consisting of 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of potable water. Finally, re-label containers that had the labels removed, including the expiration date, with a marker."

Not only can it be difficult to find and/or sanitize acceptable water for cleaning, finding safe drinking water can be even more of a challenge.

"Hurricanes, especially if accompanied by a tidal surge or flooding, can contaminate the public water supply. ... Area Health Departments will determine whether the tap water is potable, i.e., can be used for drinking. If the water is not potable or is questionable and bottled water is not available, then follow these directions to purify it:
1. Use bottled water that has not been exposed to flood waters if it is available.
2. If you don't have bottled water, you should boil water to make it safe. ...
3. If you can't boil water, you can disinfect it using household bleach. ...
4. If you have a well that has been flooded, the water should be tested and disinfected after flood waters recede. ..."
(Please see the above site for more specific details about the purification process.)

No matter what the circumstance, before you drive off to volunteer in a flood ravaged area, or tackle the job in your own home: it is important that you are properly prepared and properly protected. Only then are you able to stay safe and healthy enough to help.

"Workers and volunteers involved with flood cleanup should avoid direct skin contact with flood waters if possible and through the use of appropriate PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] and clothing. In most instances, the selection of PPE will be dependent on site specific conditions, hazards, and tasks ... In all instances, workers are advised to wash their hands with soap and clean water, especially before eating or drinking...."
(Please see the above site for more specific details about appropriate clothing and protective gear)

Questions of the Week:
How can you be ready to help with flood cleanup? What do you need to know before you begin cleaning up after a flood? What do you need to have in your home to be ready for a flood (and flood cleanup)? Which of these supplies do you already have? Where (How) can you store these supplies so that they will ready for use if they are needed after a flood? Where can you find support in your community before, during, or after a flood?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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