Now that the recent flood waters in our area have receded and the most immediate safety hazards have passed, it’s time to address the secondary health issues that can develop as the result of floodwater pollutants.
Be sure to protect your home, family and business by following these easy guidelines from Gilmer County Environmental Health.
CONTACT WITH FLOOD WATERS - Swimming and similar recreational water activities are not advised at this time. Flood waters contain large amounts of contaminants of all kinds. Many thousands of dead chickens have been washed into the streams and rivers. These fast flood waters will carry these contaminants downstream quickly but for now do not have contact with flood waters. Fishing and other non-contact activities are not affected by this advisory.
SANITIZING FLOODED AREAS – Floors, walls, equipment and furniture that have been covered with flood waters should be cleaned and sanitized to kill any disease bacteria or viruses. Flood waters usually have sewage from over-running sewers and septic systems, manure and other contaminants. Wear gloves, eye protection and boots when working with contaminated areas and items. An easy sanitizing solution is made from a quarter cup of household bleach and one gallon of water. Items should be cleaned with soap and water, rinsed and then sanitized with the bleach solution. This will kill any disease germs and help prevent mold. Do not mix bleach with any ammonia product and work in well-ventilated areas.
MOLD – Other than physical destruction of homes and businesses, mold is the most long-lasting effect of flooding. Materials in homes become soaked with water. In most cases it is necessary to take out the wet sheetrock, carpet and insulation materials so that wood studs and supports can dry. Unfortunately the drying process can take days or longer unless fans and heaters are used to speed the process. Unless the structural wood materials are completely dried, mold will grow behind the walls and under the floors. Nothing really replaces drying out the building. Do not replace sheet rock and other materials until the wood is dry or mold will grow. If mold is already growing where wet materials have been removed, spray the area with a household bleach solution made from a half cup of bleach (no more) and one gallon of water. Keep area vented and wear eye protection, gloves and boots. Remember, never mix bleach with any cleaner that contains ammonia – this will release chlorine gas and can kill. Gilmer County Environmental Health staff is available to answer questions about mold and to come view the affected area if further assistance with this problem is needed.
WELL AND SPRING CONTAMINATION – If a well or spring was covered with flood waters, it must be considered contaminated. Do not drink or prepare foods with water from a well until it is disinfected and tested. Buy bottled water to drink and use for cooking. If soils around a well casing washed away, it may be very difficult to repair and protect the well water supply. When floods cover wells, the contaminated flood waters often get inside the well itself or seep into the space between the well casing and soils. The dirty flood waters then drop down into the clean water (aquifer) at the bottom of the well. The first recovery step is to pump out the well, thoroughly, letting it run for at least 24 hours or much longer until the water has no obvious color or smell. An outside faucet may be left on to run slowly for long periods of time so no damage will occur to the well pump. There is no set time period because well capacities and degrees of contamination vary. Before going to the next step of disinfection, protect the area around the well casing by placing a cement slap at the ground surface around the casing. The slab should be at least two inches thick and extend out from the casing for two feet.
It is necessary to disinfect well water systems with plain (unscented) household bleach [5.25% sodium hypochlorite]. Two gallons are enough to disinfect any spring and well in our area. Remember to not drink or cook with the water while bleach is in the system. Pour the prescribed amount of plain bleach into the well or spring. Most drilled wells have a half-inch plug in the cap. Unscrew this plug and place a kitchen funnel in the hole. Pour in the bleach. Go to all faucets and open them up until the bleach smell comes through in the water, then shut the faucets off. A garden hose can also be used to let the bleach water recirculate back down into the well for several hours through the funnel to speed up the process. Let the bleach stay in the water system for at least 8 hours. Rid the system of the bleach by turning on an outside faucet and letting it run until all the bleach is gone. The time required to get rid of the bleach varies with each well or spring, but it may take 24 hours or more. Only use an outside faucet to discharge the bleach water because the septic system must not become flooded. A good method is to let the faucet run slowly to ensure that the well or spring doesn’t run dry and damage the pump. Don’t drink the water or prepare food with it until certain that all the bleach is gone and the water is tested. Avoid bathing with the water until the concentration of bleach is low or absent. Once the bleach is gone, make sure that the well or springhouse is sealed against contamination.
It may take two or more bleach disinfection procedures to rid the well or spring of contamination. Local resources for well testing are the UGA Extension Office and the Ellijay-Gilmer County Water and Sewer Authority located on Progress Road. If the well or spring may have been contaminated with gasoline or other petroleum products, the UGA Extension Office can have the water tested for that.
SEPTIC SYSTEM FAILURES – A septic system depends on the ability of the soil to absorb the water that enters through the drainfield (absorption field). If flooding saturates the soils, the septic system may not work. In most cases, the only thing that can be done is to wait for the water levels in the soil to fall. If sewage comes to the top of the ground, the tank could be pumped for temporary relief, but it is possible that groundwater will simply fill it again. Usually, it does not take long for the system to function properly again. If flooding washed away the soils from the absorption field, the system may need to be repaired or replaced. Call the local environmental health office if there are questions about a septic system because we have records on most of the systems in the county and can advise on what to do.
FOOD SPOILAGE AND FOOD POISONING - If in doubt, throw it out. That’s the best advice we can give about foods. If any flood waters have touched foods, then throw them out. Flood waters are usually contaminated with sewage, so don’t take any chances. If a refrigerator was not working and the temperature was 60°F or higher for more than two hours, do not eat the foods that were in it. If uncertain, don’t eat it. Remember that food spoilage and food poisoning are two different things. It’s easy to tell if a food is spoiled by odor or appearance, but many foods that cause food poisoning have no off-color or smell. It is NOT easy to tell if a food will make you sick by looking at it or smelling it. It’s better to lose money on foods than to get sick.
MOSQUITOES – Flooding leaves pools of water that are ideal for breeding mosquitoes. Some of these areas can’t be drained but if there are containers and other potential breeding places around, turn them over and let the water drain out. We are all aware of West Nile and other mosquito-carried diseases. Water that cannot be drained can be treated with certain insecticides and biological control agents such as Mosquito Dunks. Always follow the labeled instructions for pesticides.
For questions about the health effects of flood damage, please call Gilmer County Environmental Health at (706) 635-6050 or visit us on the lower floor of the Courthouse. We will be happy to be of service.