In the wake of Hurricane Harvey and Irma and with potentially more hurricanes on the way, I wanted to address the critical concerns that follow the immediate dangers of the storm itself.
After the winds stop roaring and destruction is being assessed, there are two very important factors to consider as waters subside.
First, the bacteria in the flood waters.
Second, the potential mold growth in water-damaged buildings.
While these may seem insignificant in comparison to the traumatic experiences many of you have recently suffered, over time they are possibly as deadly as the storm itself.
Bacteria in Floodwaters
Bacteria like E. coli and others commonly found in floodwaters can be deadly. Complications which can result from bacteria exposure include:
- Urinary tract infections
- Infections/boils on the skin
- Infections of the blood
- Abdominal pain/nausea
- Tetanus – causing painful muscle contractions
- Vibrio – Flesh eating bacteria, responsible for five deaths and 22 lost limbs after Hurricane Katrina
If you’ve been exposed to floodwaters, skip below to the section, “What to Do If You’ve Been Exposed to Floodwaters.”
Mold in Flood Damaged Buildings
Mold is often referred to as a silent killer because it causes low-level, chronic conditions which can go unnoticed for years.
In the aftermath of a hurricane untreated or poorly treated flood damaged buildings accumulate mold, which secretes mycotoxins and make us very sick.
Furthermore, an estimated 25 percent of Americans have the HLA-DR gene, making them particularly susceptible to toxic mold.
Complications and symptoms of chronic mold exposure include:
- Fatigue and weakness
- Difficulty concentrating, poor recall
- Chronic headaches, light sensitivity
- Red eyes, blurred vision, sweats, mood swings, sharp pains
- Abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloating
- Respiratory issues, cough or sinus congestion
During a hurricane clean up, the symptoms of mold exposure may not present, but I want you to be aware of the wide-reaching health consequences of mold exposure. I can’t stress enough the importance of cleaning up buildings properly after a flood to reduce the effects of toxic mold. And by all means do NOT re-enter a building that has visible mold growth.
If you’re about to begin cleaning out your home after a hurricane, skip below to the section “Hurricane Cleanup: What to do After a Hurricane.”
What to Do If You’ve Been Exposed to Floodwaters
If you’ve been exposed to floodwaters it was likely unavoidable and I’m so glad you’re OK! But I want to share with you the signs and symptoms of infections which can arise as a result of exposure to fecal matter and bacteria in the water itself.
If you’ve not been exposed to flood waters but know someone who has, I urge you to share this article with them.
Lane Voorhies, a senior environmental geo scientist with CRG Texas Environmental Services, sampled E. coli in flood waters around Houston after Harvey. He found E. coli levels averaging 6,000 colony-forming units (cfu). The EPA standard is zero in drinking water and a maximum of 410 cfu/100mL in recreational water.
The Houston levels are disturbingly high. If you’ve been exposed to floodwaters, you should do the following:
- Take a shower as soon as you can with an an organic bar soap free of synthetic antibacterial agents and fragrances. Studies show regular soap works just as well as antibacterial soap and is less toxic.
- Pay close attention to any broken skin, clean thoroughly and keep an eye out for infection
- Consider getting a tetanus booster if exposure was extensive or you have any open wounds.
- You should throw out any clothes that come into contact with floodwaters
- Over the next few weeks, carefully watch your health and skin for signs of infection
Overall our bodies are fairly resilient to bacterial exposures but extra caution should be taken with children and the elderly.
If you see your doctor be sure to mention you’ve been exposed to floodwaters. And remember, the earlier an infection is caught, the easier it is to treat.
Hurricane Clean-up: What to Do After a Hurricane
Genetics play a significant role in mold sensitivity.
About 25 percent of Americans carry the HLA-DR gene which makes them extremely sensitive to mold. This means their bodies cannot recover from or rid themselves of toxins. This can lead to chronic and debilitating illnesses.
If you’re interested in getting tested for the HLA-DR gene you can test your HLA genetic type HERE.
For the 75 percent of the population without the HLA-DR gene, cleaning to protect your home from mold doesn’t carry the same risks. However, just because your body is better at eliminating toxins from water damaged buildings, doesn’t mean you should re-enter your home before remediation has taken place. I highly recommend ERMI testing to determine if toxic molds are present before moving back in.
My cleaning recommendations are the same for those with and without the HLA-DR gene.
The Important Difference Between Cleaning Products and Encapsulants
Cleaning products are only useful if you’re cleaning off existing mold. They won’t prevent mold from coming back, and are considered temporary.
During hurricane clean-up you should use cleaning products first but ALWAYS follow cleaning with an encapsulant.
Encapsulants are more permanent solutions for keeping mold out of your home.
Encapsulants may be toxic (pesticides, mildewcides, biocides) or less toxic (concrobium).
While it may seem like a good idea to reach for the most powerful option available, many fungicides are harmful – possibly more harmful than the mold itself. And unless you’re specifically trained to them with the correct personal protective equipment (PPE), I urge you to leave these treatments alone or at least consult with a professional first.
In general, no chemical exposure is safe so best to avoid if at all possible. There are natural agents such as Citrisafe products that can be used without harm to your body to clean up a mold problem.
If you opt to use pesticides, you can look up the relevant Material Safety Data Sheet for each one to familiarise yourself with any potential hazards as well as the proper PPE protocols.
Basic Mold Cleaning Protocol
In general, you’ll want to clean everything thoroughly off with a cleaner first, followed by a thorough cleaning with an encapsulant.
The best cleaners include:
- Borax – It’s effective, less toxic, and cheap. You only need 1 cup of Borax per gallon of water.
- Benefect – This is an EPA-registered sanitizer, which is effective against most bacteria, including sewage.
A note regarding bleach: Bleach IS NOT effective against mold on porous surfaces such as wood and drywall. Please do not use bleach. For those with genetics that are susceptible to mold, bleach may kill the mold but the dead mold particles may still be quite toxic and induce illness.
Next, you’ll want to clean everything with an encapsulant.
The best encapsulants include:
- Caliwel – This is an EPA-registered biocide and biostat, meaning it kills mold and protects surfaces from mold.
- Concrobium – This kills mold and prevents it from returning. Though it contains acids and should be used carefully.
Finally, it’s a good idea to check for mold periodically over the next few years. There’s a chance you’ll have to go through this process more than once to keep mold out of your home.
Mold Clean-up on a Budget
It’s not lost on me that I’m offering this advice in possibly one of the most traumatic times in your life.
After a flood, many have lost literally everything. Many more need to recover as much as humanly possible with as little money as possible.
Hurricane Clean-up Support
Additional Mold Resources:
Below you’ll find additional information on mold, mold clean-up, and exposure.
I encourage you to share this article with anyone you know who has been impacted by these tragic hurricanes. It’s important that we work together to spread awareness of the hazards that exist after these storms pass.
My sincere prayers go out to all the families impacted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma….