More to floods than rising riversWith recent floods bringing down trees, flooding basements and drowning city parks or trails, many people have their minds focused on one thing — cleanup.
By: Regan Carstensen and Don Davis, The Republican Eagle
With recent floods bringing down trees, flooding basements and drowning city parks or trails, many people have their minds focused on one thing — cleanup.
While cleaning up the aftermath of a flood is obviously a priority, many forget that caution should be taken in doing so. Believe it or not, there are hidden health risks associated with extreme rainfall and flooding.
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.
Even if an item looks mold free, it may not be. Tranter said dry wall, for instance, needs to be examined from both the front and back. Often, mold can form out of sight and it may not be visible to the eye for days. This is where the health problems stem, as mold 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.”
A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists highlights several health risks of extreme precipitation and flooding, and provides tips for staying safe.
For one of the risks — bacteria in local waterways and swimming holes — climate economist Rachel Cleetus said to sign up for local swimming alerts and look out for warnings from health departments regarding the community’s lakes and rivers.
Another risk, that of sewage backup in basements, can be partially reduced by hiring professionals to do the cleaning since they know the ins and outs of what can be salvaged and what should be tossed, Cleetus said.
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 floodwater 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 floodwater 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 for 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 floodwater 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.”
Steps to remove mold
Here is how the Minnesota Health Department and Homeland Security and Emergency Management office recommend removing mold from flooded homes:
• Take written inventory and document with photos all damage before removing anything. That provides proof of damage to insurance and others who might provide financial assistance.
• Find and remove all moisture sources, even those not flood-related.
• Dry all wet materials as soon as possible. Porous items such as wall board, insulation and carpet with mold should be put in bags and thrown out. Non-porous materials such as hard plastic, glass, metal and concrete often can be cleaned and saved.
• Items may be disinfected with a mixture of a quarter-cup to a half-cup of bleach per gallon of water. The mixture may be sprayed on or applied with a sponge or cloth. It should not be wiped or rinsed off; allow it to dry on the surface.
• When working with mold, wear a disposable respirator mask, rubber gloves, long sleeves and goggles. Outer clothing should be removed before leaving the work area and laundered or thrown out. Do not eat, drink or smoke in the contaminated area.