How to safely re-enter flooded homes

HOUSTON – If your home flooded, Vibrio, E.coli and all kinds of bacteria lurking in the water are now contaminating your walls, tiles, furniture and the air you breathe.

Since many homeowners are doing the work that would typically require professionals, Dr. Winnifred Hamilton, director of the Environmental Health Service at Baylor College of Medicine said people to know that masks, boots and gloves are critical to your health.

Symptoms of exposure to flood water toxins include:

  • Rashes
  • Swelling
  • Problems breathing
  • Any sort of infection

“Some of these issues might not present themselves, a person could have asthma, have their asthma exacerbated by getting back into the home a little bit early, get mucus in their lungs, maybe get pneumonia on top of that and so perhaps be very ill six weeks from now and that would still be associated with early exposure,” Hamilton said.

She said people with asthma, or the immune-compromised, should not be involved in the cleanup. For everyone else, she advises them to wear protective clothing.

“N95 respirator or face mask. This is a face mask that generally has a little hole that you can breathe out of and it has a couple extra bands. It's not very expensive, about $2,” Hamilton said. “Remember, we also want to have goggles, things can get splashed in your face. You want to have rubber gloves. So, not just disposable gloves, you can wear disposable gloves but put them into a heavier rubber gloves. You should have good shoes or boots on.”

Hamilton said the shoes should be sturdy enough to protect you if you step on debris or nails that would puncture your foot. Also, shoes should be water-proof so they do not hold bacteria close to your foot.

In addition to elevated bacteria, flooded houses may now contain chromium, lead, arsenic and gasoline. So, even if your home has minimal damage, she said to clean everything.

“Most cases you will need to pull out the toe moldings because they'll be trapped in water and may be breeding bacteria and mold behind it,” Hamilton said.

According to Hamilton, mold is most easily identified by a musty smell or the appearance of mold colonies in damp areas. In general, nonprofessionals should not attempt mold removal if the affected area is larger than roughly a 6-foot by  5-foot area. For small amounts of mold, washing with a solution of five gallons of water, one cup of bleach and a non-phosphate detergent may be effective.

Hamilton said to consider all of your belongings contaminated if they’ve been sitting in water. However, if you need to buy yourself some time to figure out how to clean something-- or to have time to make digital copies of papers and photos you can place them in plastic, Ziploc bags and freeze them until you can figure out what to do.  Freezing an item won’t necessarily kill all contaminants, but Hamilton said frozen items won't spread contamination.

Anyone doing the cleaning should only be there during the day to work-- do not stay there all day and night.