Is that mud near the swing set full of bacteria? Should anyone eat all this produce from the garden? Will that sweat shirt you wore to clean out the basement be a health hazard?
Yes, probably not and possibly, at least to the first three questions. For more answers to frequently asked questions about health hazards in flood situations, start with the following list and send us any other queries:
Q: Is the mud in the house and yard just mud, or should we treat it like a safety problem?
A: The newly arrived mud likely is a safety problem and should be treated that way in the days and weeks before hot sun and time help kill bacteria. City sewers and storm drains are overflowing into those sheets of water and debris; roaring creeks are carrying animal manure and other waste down from the foothills and higher farmland. Wear a respiratory-quality mask while cleaning, and use anti-bacterial cleaners to wash up kids and yourselves after work or play.
Q: Can we eat any of the food from inside a house that was flooded?
A: First check to see if you lost power to the refrigerator and for how long. Most food begins to spoil within two hours after loss of cooling. Soft or liquid dairy spoils fast; hard cheeses and dried meats can last longer. When in doubt, throw it out, university extension agents say. Be careful with canned goods stored near floodwaters. Scrub the outside of containers with a cleaning solution, remove labels and let air dry, making sure nothing was punctured. A disinfecting solution for cans can be made by mixing commercial bleach with water for a soaking bath — an example is mixing 1 tablespoon of 4 percent chlorine solution with a gallon of water.
Q: Should we save any garden produce if it was in or near flood water?
A: A number of food safety outbreaks started when contaminated field water touched leafy greens or other produce, then stuck through the harvesting and packaging process. Assume the same can happen when manure or chemical-tainted floodwaters washed over your corn, pumpkins and tomatoes. Colorado State University suggests, in the useful "How to clean up after a flood" manual, not to eat produce unless it was more than two weeks away from maturing at the time of the inundation. Two weeks can give sun, air and time the opportunity to work magic.
Q: Can we drink the tap water safely?
A: Make sure your community has issued a safe tap water notice. Until then, boil any water you need to drink for three minutes, or use bottled resources from rescue operations, according to experts from the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Q: Is soaked clothing hopeless?
A: Not necessarily, but you should sanitize the clothing if it sat in flood water or you are soiling clothes in cleanup operations and plan to use them again. "Bacteria from floodwaters can remain alive on fabrics for a long time," CSU warns. Extension agents recommend, depending on the fabric, one of four materials: quaternary, such as Roccal; liquid chlorine; pine oil; or phenolic, such as Pine-Sol or Sea-Air.
Q: Will the flood cause another plague in the form of bugs?
A: Water and muddy puddles will increase the hazards of mosquitoes and flies that can bite or contaminate food. Colorado has had a flurry of West Nile cases lately from mosquitoes, and those risks will increase with ponds and puddles from the foothills to the Nebraska border. You can create a bigger perimeter of safety by looking for and eliminating standing water in your yard or work area. Dump out a kiddy pool, tip over a full wheelbarrow, and unclog the gutters. If there are dead birds, fish or other carcasses nearby, bury them or get them to a disposal area.
Q: Are there other hazards to consider?
A: Slip and fall is a big one, when stairs, yards and slick interior floors are covered with even slicker mud or residue, Louisiana experts warn. They see a large number of secondary injuries during flood cleanup, as homeowners step briskly onto unexpected dangers. Louisiana rescuers also hand out stout gloves in cleanup kits that include mops and bleach. Debris is rife with broken glass, rusty nails, splinters and other risks. Bacteria-laden mud compounds the danger of any cut. Keep a good first-aid kit handy during neighborhood cleanup efforts.