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Be Safe When Cleaning After Flooding

Flooding has ravaged multiple regions of the U.S., causing extensive damage. As the nation recovers from this flooding, Mayo Clinic Health System physicians have several health-related tips to keep in mind.

Floodwater may be contaminated, but it’s unlikely that simple skin contact will make you sick ─ even if raw sewage is visible. However, swallowing floodwater or anything that’s been contaminated could make you sick. Check with a physician or your local public health office if you show signs of illness (e.g., fatigue, nausea, swelling, fever, etc.).

To keep children safe, don’t allow them to play in or near floodwater, or in areas recently flooded. Also:

  • Make sure your child’s hands are washed frequently, especially before meals.
  • Disinfect toys that may be contaminated by washing them with a solution of 2 ounces of bleach in 1 gallon of water.
  • Discard any soft toys that may be contaminated. Young children may put these items into their mouths.

Regarding food supplies, try to keep refrigerators close to 41 degrees Fahrenheit. If your power is lost, a refrigerator will keep food cool for four to six hours if left unopened. In addition:

  • Keep frozen food from thawing. Without power and left unopened, your freezer will keep food frozen for one day at half capacity and up to two days at full capacity.
  • Commercially canned foods in good condition are safe if you remove the labels. Wash the sealed can with warm water and detergent, and then disinfect it using a solution of 1 tablespoon bleach to 1 gallon clean water. Relabel the cans, so you know what’s inside.
  • Destroy canned goods if the can surface is badly rusted, pitted, swollen, leaking, creased or dented at the rims and seals.
  • Rigid plastic containers without a screw top are safe if they aren’t defective;  haven’t been submerged in water or other liquids; and if any soil can be removed, and the closure has no soil, rust or dents.
  • Discard foods that have come in contact with floodwater that are prepacked in paper, boxes, glass jars with screw tops or other non-waterproof packages
  • If in doubt, throw it out.

Other health issues you should keep in mind include:

Water Listen to, and follow, public announcements. Local authorities will tell you if tap water is safe to drink, or use for cooking or bathing. If the water isn’t safe to use, follow local instructions to use bottled water, or boil or disinfect water for cooking, cleaning or bathing.

  • Correctly boil or disinfect water. Hold water at a rolling boil for one minute to kill bacteria. If you can’t boil water, add 1/8 teaspoon of newly purchased, unscented liquid household bleach per gallon of water. Stir the water well, and let it stand for 30 minutes before you use it. You can use water-purifying tablets instead of boiling water, or use bleach.
  • For infants, use only canned baby formula. Don’t use powdered formulas prepared with treated water. Clean children’s toys that have come in contact with water. Use a solution of 1 cup bleach in 5 gallons of water to clean the toys. Let toys air dry after cleaning.

Mold   If you are sensitive to mold, you may experience a stuffy nose, irritated eyes, wheezing or skin irritation. To protect your lungs against mold, wear a mask while you’re in an area that has mold growth.

  • Clean up and dry out buildings quickly — within 24 to 48 hours. Open doors and windows. Use fans to dry out buildings.
  • To clean moldy surfaces, use a mixture of 1 cup bleach to 1 gallon water. Wear gloves to protect your hands.

Tetanus  If you come in contact with floodwater, make sure you’re up to date on your tetanus shot.

  • Tetanus can invade openings in the skin during flooding, causing a health issue called lockjaw, which causes a painful tightening of the muscles all over the body. It can lock the jaw, so you cannot open your mouth or swallow.
  • If you plan on helping others clean up from the flooding, make sure you’re up to date on your tetanus shot. Everyone should have a tetanus shot once every 10 years.

Wounds  Clean out all open wounds and cuts with soap and clean water. Apply an antibiotic ointment. Contact a doctor to find out whether more treatment, such as tetanus shot, is needed. If a wound gets red, swells or drains, seek immediate medical attention.

Lastly, pace yourself, and get support. Be alert to physical and emotional exhaustion or strain. Set priorities for cleanup tasks, work with others and stay rested. Ask your family members, friends or professionals for support, if needed.