Flood cleanup can be dangerous. Here’s how to stay safe.


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As the floodwaters begin to recede, families, business owners and volunteer cleanup groups will begin to re-enter buildings and begin the long cleanup process. Unfortunately, many flood-related injuries and health problems, and even fatalities, occur during the cleanup response. It is essential to remember that although flood waters may recede, there are a number of dangers to be aware of.

If you or someone you know is planning to respond to the flood disaster by clearing debris, please protect yourself and others around you. Keep in mind the following:

Before entering a house or building, make sure the building is stable. Assume all stairs, floors and roofs are unsafe until they are inspected.

Don’t do any demolition. Demolition should only be carried out by a highly skilled and trained worker.

Be on the lookout and stay away from damaged power lines and utilities. Dial 911 if you suspect damaged utilities and do not enter the area. If water covers or even near an electrical outlet, the water could carry a charge causing electric shock, burns, or electrocution.

Portable generators emit carbon monoxide (CO). CO is odorless and colorless. Breathing CO may cause headaches, dizziness, drowsiness or nausea resulting in unconsciousness. Prolonged exposure may cause coma or death. Use generators only outdoors in a dry location at least 20 feet from doors and windows and never in attached garages.

When removing debris, wear safety shoes with non-slip soles, safety glasses, leather work gloves, hard hat, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt.

Suppose houses built before 1979 contain asbestos. Asbestos fibers can become airborne and inhaled during cleaning. Due to the known hazards of asbestos, cleanup should only be carried out by a licensed professional wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).

Suppose houses built before 1978 contain lead. Lead is highly toxic to humans, especially children and pregnant women.

Mold will be a major problem in areas affected by flooding. Mold grows on almost anything and can spread quickly! It can cause allergic reactions, eye and skin irritation, and increased asthma symptoms. If you are handling materials that contain mold, wear an N-95 respirator, goggles, protective gloves and coveralls.

During the cleanse, be aware of your surroundings and how your body reacts to exertion. Cleaning jobs can cause heat stress, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Be sure to take frequent breaks and drink plenty of water. Be aware of those working around you and check in on them often.

Many resources and information are available to help you protect yourself and others during the flood response. Our Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Kentucky within the College of Public Health has created a list of resources to protect the health and safety of all cleanup crews and individuals.

Erin Haynes

If you or others you know will be participating in the cleanup, please visit this website to learn more about precautions: https://cph.uky.edu/departments/epidemiology-environmental-health/eastern-kentucky-flood -safety-resources.

The flood has already claimed far too many lives. Let’s look out for each other to make sure no more is needed.

Dr. Erin Haynes is chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health.

This story was originally published August 4, 2022 11:38 a.m.

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