Health Concerns for Flood Recovery

The floods in the Midwest during the summer of 1993 resulted in a corresponding flood of information about health precautions in dealing with such disasters. OSHA, in support of the Mississippi Valley Regional Response Teams, produced three Flood Cleanup Alert Bulletins, “How to Protect Yourself from Safety and Health Hazards During Cleanup Operations,” “How to Protect Yourself When Cleaning Up After the Flood” and “How to Protect Yourself from Fungal Diseases.” The bulletins are available from depository libraries. There are two OSHA area offices, in Denver (303) 844-5285 and in Englewood (303) 843-4500. The OSHA Consultation Project Directory in Colorado is (303) 491-6151 and in Wyoming (307) 777-7786. The following is a summary of those bulletins.

There are two types of water disasters; the “clean” flood usually involves broken pipes or a leaking roof while a “dirty” flood is courtesy of nature. Natural flood water often contains debris, even dead animals, that you can see but also much more serious risks that you can’t see. Infectious organisms such as typhoid or chemicals from farms and waste sites are frequent components of flood water. Assume any flood water will make you ill and wash your hands frequently, particularly before you take breaks for meals or bathrooms. Make sure the water you are washing with is clean by using bottled water, water boiled for at least 10 minutes (REMEMBER, at higher altitudes this may not be effective), or water that has 5 drops of liquid bleach for each gallon of water. Use insect repellant because pools of standing water will be a breeding ground and the insects are likely to be carrying even worse diseases than usual. If you have any reason to suspect chemical contamination (you are in a heavily agricultural area or close to a site using chemicals; it is even possible your own air conditioning systems could be leaking) be sure to wear protective clothing, including rubber boots and gloves, and goggles. If your skin is exposed to the flood water, wash the area as soon as possible with soap and clean water.

Tetanus shots are vital and anyone working in the area must have had a shot within the last ten years. Symptoms of bacterial disease include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, muscle aches, and fever. Symptoms of chemical poisoning are headaches, skin rashes, dizziness, nausea, excitability, weakness and fatigue. Medical care is needed for these symptoms. Know where such medical care is available and PLAN how you will reach it BEFORE you begin.

Because a dirty flood usually involves a vast area (which can include higher-priority recovery areas than the library or records center) and it can take weeks for the water to recede, any attempts at recovery are made under different rules than those involving clean floods. You need to be ACUTELY aware of how stable your building or floors may be. If you are walking in water, use a pole to check for pits, holes or protruding objects. Check carefully for any possible downed wires or other electrical hazards. Make sure your electrical system is OFF and have an electrician check the system before it is turned back on. If you are using extension cords make sure they are appropriate for wet use, unfrayed, and that any connection points are out of the water and anchored to stay out of water. Electric tools and equipment must be grounded or double insulated. Ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) must be used wherever there is water. Portable ones are available from hardware stores. Use fuel-powered generators only in well-ventilated areas.

The 48-hour window before mold sets in may come and go long before recovery efforts can begin and if the water is receding slowly, looks on higher shelves may have been exposed to air and mold for days while books on the bottom shelves may still be under water. Sometimes, the best you can do is recover the books that were never wet, get them away from the mold exposure and dehumidify them.

If your books have become moldy, you are exposed to an additional health risk. While working in moldy areas, wear a dust mask. If the mold is heavy, you should get a cartridge respirator (like WWII gas masks) or even a respirator with air tanks (like a firefighter’s). Some people are allergic and any exposure is not safe. Exposure may cause people with no previous allergies to become allergic. People with heart or lung problems, or pregnant women should not use respirators. Remember that fungus likes people as much as books, so pay particular attention to cleaning your hair, scalp and nails.

Remember that wet books are heavy. Take frequent breaks and use good lifting techniques. Sneakers are not appropriate footwear around slippery books. Treat any breaks in your skin immediately so have easy access to a first aid kit. If you are outside during the summer, be careful not to get dehydrated and use sun screen.

Much of this advice is obvious and only requires common sense; however during a disaster, common sense may be lost to fatigue, worry, or adrenalin. Floods do not provide the quick panic of a fire but long-term worry and pervasive, wide-spread problems may be even more debilitating. Never assume that everyone knows how to be safe. Cover everything with everyone and repeat whenever necessary.