When you go home after a flood, don’t assume that your house is safe, say public health experts.
Communities in British Columbia and New Brunswick have seen heavy flooding over the last two weeks, and some residents are being allowed back home. But cleaning up the house can carry health risks.
Here’s what public health agencies say you should do to protect yourself.
Floodwater isn’t just water, unfortunately. “The floodwater itself can be contaminated with a lot of things,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer.
“It can have sewage in it, so there could be risk of getting diarrheal illness. There’s also sometimes chemicals in the water, so you want to really avoid the floodwaters as much as possible and don’t allow kids and pets to play in the floodwater areas.”
Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health for New Brunswick, said that residents should wear hip waders, rubber boots and rubber gloves if they’re touching the floodwater.
You also need to make sure that you’re washing your hands before eating or touching your face and eyes, she said, “because the bacteria and illness that you see would be E. coli and salmonella and fecal-oral contamination. That’s really why you have to wash your hands, because it could get on your food and you could ingest it that way.”
Public health agencies sometimes see upticks in diarrheal illness following a flood, Henry said, and keeping your hands clean after touching the water or touching things that have been in the water can help prevent this.
Drinking water can also be a source of contamination and illness. Both Henry and Russell advise checking with local authorities for boil-water advisories if you’re on a municipal water system.
If you have well water, you need to test your well water before drinking it. New Brunswick says that if the flood waters went higher than your well, it’s potentially contaminated, and you should wait 10 days and then get its water tested.
Another big hazard when you get home is mould.
“Within 24 to 48 hours of the water receding, that’s your window of opportunity for cleaning the things that can be dried out,” Russell said.
“Those things that are soft, like mattresses or insulation, can’t really be salvaged, so that all has to be discarded.”
You should clean your things with a diluted bleach solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water to disinfect them, Emergency Management B.C. recommends. Henry also suggests opening your windows and turning on fans if you can to dry everything out as quickly as possible.
Those first 48 hours are critical, Russell said.
“After that, that’s when the mould starts to grow. And the types of health problems you might get with that would be problematic.”
These could include runny eyes, cough and phlegm buildup or skin reactions. People with underlying allergies and respiratory illnesses might find that mould exacerbates their conditions too.
Before you enter your home, you should make sure that it’s safe to turn on your electricity and gas, Henry said. Your service provider can let you know.
As well, if you’ve lost power in your house, you should discard the food that’s in your refrigerator and freezer as it’s probably no longer safe to eat, she said.
Being evacuated from your home is stressful, Russell said, and it’s important to take care of your mental as well as your physical health.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty and disruption in people’s lives,” she said. So, she recommends that people make sure to sleep well, eat properly and get some exercise during this stressful time. Keeping a regular routine can help — especially for children, she said.
New Brunswick urges people to call their tele-care health line at 811 if they feel like they need some extra guidance.