Safety tips for returning to a building and cleaning up after flooding

A building that has been flooded can be a dangerous place. Here are some tips from Polk County Local Government and the Rutherford Polk McDowell District Health Department for understanding and dealing with the hazards of flooded buildings.

WATCH OUT FOR THESE DANGERS
Never assume that a water-damaged house is safe. Going into a building that has been flooded, even after the water is gone, can present a wide variety of hazards that can cause injury, illness or even death. Do not allow children in the home after the flood or while it is being cleaned, inspected or repaired.

  • Electrical hazards: Do not enter a flooded or wet building if the power is on. If any electrical circuits have gotten wet, turn off the power at the main breaker or fuse box and leave it off until the electrical wiring or equipment has been inspected and repaired by a licensed electrician and approved by your local building inspector.
  • Structural damage: Do not enter a building if the framing or foundation is damaged. Look carefully before you enter. Leave immediately if shifting or unusual noises signal a possible collapse of the building. Contact your local building inspector for a safety inspection.
  • Hazardous materials: Dangerous materials found in flooded homes may include pesticides, fuel oil, gasoline, chemicals and other substances that might have been brought in or spilled by flood waters. Damaged buildings may also contain asbestos and lead-based paint, which can cause health problems during clean-up. Practically any building material that is not obviously solid wood, metal or glass could contain asbestos. Lead-based paint can be found pre-1978 housing and is still used in commercial and industrial buildings.
  • Animal and insect related hazards: Look carefully before entering a building to determine if there are displaced animals in the building such as dogs and cats, raccoons and rodents. Watch out for snakes and insects such as wasps, fire ants and mosquitoes.
  • Injuries: Falling objects, broken or damaged building components and slick surfaces can cause injuries, broken bones and cuts. Lifting heavy objects can cause back injuries and muscle strains.
  • Biological hazards: Bacteria, viruses, fungi (mold and mildew) and other microorganisms can cause illness when you breathe them in, take them into your body through your mouth or take them in through non-intact skin. Bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms may be left indoors by floodwater, while mold and mildew may grow indoors after the floodwater has receded.
    – Bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms: If you accidentally get floodwater or the dirt it leaves behind into your mouth, you might develop gastrointestinal or digestive tract illness.
    – Mold and mildew (fungi): Mold will grow on many building materials such as furniture, carpet and other items that stay wet for more than 24 hours. Mold colonies are the fuzzy or patchy white, green, brown or black growths that you will see on wallboard, wood furniture and cabinets, clothing, wall studs and almost any other surface. Molds releases tiny particles into the air that can cause allergic illnesses like hay fever (coughing, sneezing, eye irritation), asthma symptoms or other respiratory illness that can be serious. Some molds may also produce toxins that could cause other illnesses. People are exposed to mold every day both indoors and outside but mold contamination can be quite severe in a water-damaged building. Health risks are greater for people with allergies or asthma, people with compromised immune systems and for the very old or very young.

STAY SAFE WHILE WORKING

  • Wear a hard hat and safety goggles when there is a danger of falling materials.
  • Wear leather work gloves to protect your hands from cuts or rubber gloves to
    prevent exposure to hazardous chemicals.
  • Wear rubber boots or hard-soled boots, preferably with steel toes, when working and lifting.
  • Wear a facemask. When you enter a flooded building, wear a dust mask or respirator to reduce your exposure to mold. At hardware or home supply stores, look for a mask with NIOSH approval and an N-95 rating. Both of these marks should be on the respirator and the container. Read and follow the instructions on the mask package. Remember that dust masks will only provide protection against solid materials such as dusts and liquids. Dust masks provide no protection against gases and vapors. Dust masks are disposable and should be thrown away at the end of the day.
  • Stay alert. Accidents happen when people are tired. Take necessary breaks and drink plenty of fluids (bottled water, juice, soft drinks) to avoid dehydration. Never drink alcohol when you are working in a flooded building.
  • Stay alert for displaced animals, snakes and biting or stinging insects.
  • Protect yourself from bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms. To keep from getting sick, wear rubber gloves while working; do not eat, drink, or smoke in the house; wash your hands frequently with soap and rinse with clean water.
  • Wet down mold. Before you touch, move or clean moldy or mildewed materials, wet the mold with a soapy solution from a spray bottle to prevent the mold from getting into the air. Do this even if the material is already wet because the mold probably won’t be wet. Remember that mold can still make you sick even after you have sprayed disinfectants like mold/mildew killer to kill it.
  • Be careful lifting. To avoid back injuries when lifting or handling heavy and bulky loads like furniture or carpet, avoid lifting loads of more than 50 pounds per person.
  • Get help. Before you disturb or remove materials that may be hazardous, take precautions to prevent exposure. If there is a noticeable chemical odor and/or a spilled container of a hazardous material in the building, get help by calling the Rutherford Polk McDowell District Health Dept. at (828) 894-8271 or a local fire department  If there is asbestos or lead paint in the building, call N.C. Health Hazards Control at (919) 707-5950.