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Proper post-flood cleanup essential to lung health

Posted at 4:26 PM, Mar 20, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-20 17:27:11-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — The loss from the historic flooding is tragic--and the cleanup itself creates a potential for serious and long-lasting health issues.

The American Lung Association is stressing safety as the waters recede, noting that chemicals, sewage, oil, gas and other dangerous substances found in floodwaters can lead to serious health risks for area residents.

“Standing water and dampness is a breeding ground for bacteria, viruses and mold,” warns American Lung Association Chief Medical Officer Albert Rizzo, M.D. in a press release. “These can become airborne and inhaled, putting people at risk for lung disease. In fact, mold has been associated with wheezing, coughing, and in some cases asthma attacks, and some evidence links mold with respiratory illness in otherwise healthy children.”

Mold grows anywhere near water or dampness, and cleaning up affected homes and household items is essential to protecting respiratory health.

The American Lung Association offers the following guidelines to assist those working to clean up:

  • Protect yourself before returning to the building. During the cleanup, you risk inhaling dust, contaminants and microorganisms, which are unhealthy for anyone to breathe, but especially risky for children, older adults and people with lung diseases. Wear protective clothing, including gloves, rubber boots and a NIOSH-certified N95 mask to protect you from breathing these particles. NOTE: N95 masks must be fitted and are suited only for adults. Ordinary dust masks cannot provide adequate protection.
  • Turn off the electricity and gas at the main location during cleanup. In addition, do not use portable gasoline- or diesel-powered generators, power washers, grills, camp stoves or other gasoline, propane or charcoal-burning equipment and other devices inside. These produce carbon monoxide that can kill occupants if it builds up indoors.
  • When in doubt, toss it out! Remove everything that has been soaked by water, including clothing, papers, furnishings, carpet, ceiling tiles and wallboard. Anything that cannot be cleaned and dried and anything porous (like drywall or carpet) that had been in floodwaters for 24 to 48 hours recede must be discarded. Simply drying out water will not remove the bacteria or toxins that can make people sick. Damp buildings and furnishings promote the growth of bacteria, dust mites, cockroaches and mold, which can aggravate asthma and allergies and may cause the development of asthma, wheeze, cough and other allergic diseases. Dangerous substances in floodwaters can include sewage, chemicals, oil and gas which can saturate materials in the home and give off harmful gases.
  • Use soap and water for cleaning, especially to scrub mold off hard surfaces. Do not use bleach, which can make it hard to breathe.
  • Consider hiring professional cleaners. Individuals with lung disease should seek help cleaning their homes and workplaces after floods. And if more than 10 square feet of your home is flooded or if water has been in the building for more than one or two days, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends hiring professional cleaners. Flood waters bring in nasty residue that may contaminate porous building materials. Mold flourishes in this environment. Attempting to clean without professional help may increase the risk of developing respiratory problems from these exposures.
  • Do not burn debris or waste, which adds dangerous pollution to the air. Remove it to a designated disposal area.
  • Keep an eye on symptoms. It is not uncommon for people to develop health problems after a disaster such as widespread flooding, even if they’ve never had problems before. Be aware of any breathing problems that may arise, including coughing (especially at night), wheezing or feeling short of breath and chest tightness or pain.

More information on how lung health is impacted by flooding can be found here.