Following recent rainstorms, the Niagara County Department of Health public health director advises communities of a number of steps they can take to prevent health risks associated with home flooding.
Flooded homes and basements can present a number of health risks if not addressed adequately. Two of the primary problems associated with home flooding are bacterial and viral contamination from sewage backup, and mold growth from residual moisture. These problems can lead to human infection and illnesses.
Septic Systems and Sewage
Flooding may cause wastewater to back up into homes that have private septic systems. Once the water recedes, a high water table may still prevent these systems from functioning properly for some time. Residents with municipal sewer systems may also experience sewage backup when surging floodwater overwhelms older systems or power outages occur during a storm surge.
Sewage contains bacteria, viruses, and other germs that can cause disease and make a contaminated house unfit for living. The health risks related to sewage are dependent upon the amount of sewage, the types of germs that are in it, the amount of time it has been in contact with materials in the home, and how much and how long an occupant was exposed.
Generally, the more solids (human waste) present in the water, the greater the need for prompt and proper cleanup of materials that came into direct contact with it. The most common signs and symptoms after exposure to raw sewage are stomach and bowel distress (nausea, vomiting and diarrhea), and skin problems such as rashes and sores. Respiratory infections are uncommon, as germs from fecal matter rarely become airborne and generally die off after things dry out.
Individuals who experience GI symptoms (nausea, diarrhea, vomiting) after exposure to sewage should contact their health care providers.
Wear rubber boots and waterproof gloves during cleanup if sewage has backed up into your home. Remove and discard contaminated household goods such as wall coverings, rugs, cloth and drywall that cannot be disinfected. Be sure to thoroughly disinfect all contaminated surfaces that come in contact with food and children's play areas. Disinfect non-porous surfaces with a solution of three tablespoons of bleach to one gallon of water or one cup to five gallons.
Individuals with open cuts or sores should try not to contact sewage-contaminated floodwater. If accidentally exposed to flood water, keep skin - especially any cuts or sores - as clean as possible by washing with soap and disinfected or boiled water. Apply antibiotic ointment and cover with a sterile bandage to reduce the risk of infection. If you have deep cuts and/or puncture wounds and have not had a tetanus vaccination within the past 10 years, or are unsure of the date of the last tetanus shot, get a tetanus booster.
For additional information on managing sewage backups, click on this link for a fact sheet: http://www.niagaracounty.com/Portals/4/Docs/Sewage_Backup_Fact_Sheet.pdf.
Moisture and Mold Growth
Mold will grow in flooded homes and buildings that do not dry out quickly. People living or working in buildings with wet carpets, walls, mattresses or furniture may develop health problems such as allergies, asthma and sneezing.
Mold can grow in these materials to concentrations presenting a health risk in as little as 48 hours. Persons at highest risk are those with allergies, asthma, chronic respiratory diseases, infants, pregnant women and individuals with compromised immune systems.
For information on preventing and managing mold, click on this link: https://www.health.ny.gov/publications/7287.pdf.