Clean-up tips and water safety precautions in the event of flooding

Staff Writer
Gonzales Weekly Citizen

As we brace for Tropical Storm Barry to make landfall tomorrow, Louisianans are facing a potentially damaging storm and flood situation. Solutions Through Science offers the following updated guidelines provided by the Water Quality & Health Council in the event that you take on water in your home or business.

First, assume that all floodwaters are contaminated, and that exposure may increase the risk of illness, including fever, gastrointestinal infections, hepatitis, skin and eye infections, and respiratory disorders.

The first step is to remove floodwater and sewage and dry the affected area. Powerful fans and enhanced ventilation are helpful for drying damp structural surfaces. Meanwhile it is important to evaluate items contacted by floodwaters, deciding what to discard and what to keep. Whenever possible, a disinfecting solution of water and chlorine bleach should be applied to the affected surfaces of saved items.

To help prevent disease transmission associated with flood cleanup, the Water Quality & Health Council offers the following tips:

• When using a disinfecting solution to clean up after a flood, remember to:

---Wear gloves and protective clothing. Do not touch your face or eyes.

---Change the disinfecting solution daily. Unused solution may be discharged into a toilet or sink.

---Be thorough. Wash and dry everything well.

---When finished, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, even if you have worn gloves.

• If an item got wet, assume it is contaminated.

• Disinfecting works best when all loose dirt and debris are removed first. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends first washing surfaces with soap and warm, clean water. Next, use a household bleach solution to disinfect.

• Prepare a bleach solution (3/4 cup regular strength – six percent – chlorine bleach to one gallon of water) to disinfect walls, floors and other surfaces touched by floodwaters. Keep the area wet for at least two minutes.

• When addressing exterior surfaces, such as outdoor furniture, patios, decks and play equipment, keep surfaces wet with a disinfecting solution for 10 minutes after removing loose dirt and debris with soap and warm, clear water. This may mean wetting the surface with disinfection solution more than once.

• Carpets and rugs that have been soaked for more than 24 hours should be discarded. If carpets and rugs were soaked for less than 24 hours, evaluate as follows:

---Carpets that contacted sewage-contaminated floodwater should be discarded.

---Carpets that contacted only clean basement seepage or lawn runoff into a sub-basement, for example, may be dried and cleaned.

---Washable throw rugs usually can be cleaned adequately in a washing machine.

---For more information on cleaning flood-damaged carpets and rugs, see this North Dakota State University website.

• Remember there is insulation behind the wall, so disinfecting the drywall will not be sufficient. Remove the drywall and the wet insulation and disinfect the wood studs before installing new insulation and drywall.

• Throw away any food that has come in contact with floodwaters. Some canned foods may be salvageable; cans that have come in contact with floodwaters should be disinfected, but cans that are dented or damaged should be thrown away. Food contaminated by floodwaters can cause severe infections. A general rule of thumb for cleanup is when in doubt, throw it out.

• To disinfect undamaged cans:

---Remove all loose dirt and debris.

---Wash can surface with soapy water and rinse thoroughly with plain water.

---Apply a chlorine bleach solution for two minutes, then rinse thoroughly and dry.

• Chlorine bleach solutions degrade quickly, so be sure to make a fresh solution daily as needed.

• Contaminated clothing should be washed in the hottest possible water with detergent and chlorine bleach if fabric instructions permit.

Disinfecting Private Wells

If you live in an area that was recently flooded, your private well may be contaminated or damaged from pollutants and debris carried by flood water. Well owners should always suspect water contamination any time the well casing becomes flooded, or if there are noticeable taste, color, or sediment changes in the well water.

Here are some first steps, including things you should do (and not do), if your well has been impacted by floodwaters:

• Do not drink or cook with your well water! You could get sick from microbial or other contaminants washed into the well by the flood.

• Do not turn on the well pump! There is a danger of electrical shock and damage to your well.

• Contact a certified well contractor to assess and address flooding of your well-pump system, including debris clean-up and mechanical and electrical component inspections and repairs.

If you suspect your drinking water is contaminated, find an alternative source you know to be safe for drinking and cooking, such as commercial bottled water or household water boiled for a full minute. Flooding can allow bacteria and other microorganisms and contaminants to enter the top of a well or seep down along the well’s casing. Even if flood water did not rise above the top of a well casing, a neighbor’s well may have been flooded, allowing contamination of nearby wells.

Before resuming use of your well, collect a water sample and have it tested for bacteria by a state certified laboratory, which can be found by consulting your local or state health department. If tests indicate your well is contaminated with bacteria, you should have the well and the entire plumbing system disinfected using a shock chlorination process. A licensed well contractor will have the equipment, materials, and expertise to properly disinfect a well.

Alternatively, well owners can disinfect their own wells if the directions – particularly determining and safely adding an appropriate amount of unscented bleach are followed carefully.

• Always have your water tested a second time after it is treated with chlorine-based disinfectants or any other disinfection or treatment process.

• Disinfection or boiling will not provide protection from other contaminants (e.g., fuels) that may have contaminated your private well.

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Contributed by Solutions through Science