Flooding Advice From Northern Ireland DHSSPS

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The floodwater affecting your home or other property may have been contaminated with sewage, animal waste and other contaminants and often leaves a muddy deposit. However, experience from previous flooding and sewage contamination has shown that any risk to health is small. Booster immunisations or antibiotics are not usually required. Harmful gut bacteria such as E. coli O157 may be present in sewage and animal slurry, and this can pass into flood water, although there is likely to be substantial dilution and therefore the risk to health is low.

There are a few precautions to be aware of when dealing with flooding which should prevent unnecessary additional health problems:

* Health risks can be minimised by taking general hygiene precautions and by the use of protective clothing (waterproof boots and gloves) whilst cleaning up.

* Always wash your hands with soap and clean water after being in contact with flood water, sewage or items that have been contaminated by these, or participating in flood cleanup activities.

* Don't allow children to play in floodwater areas until the area is cleaned up or for about a week after which sunlight and soil help destroy harmful bacteria and any excess risk to health should disappear. Wash children's hands frequently (always before meals). Wash floodwater-contaminated toys with hot water or disinfect before allowing them to be used.

* Keep any open cuts or sores clean and prevent them being exposed to flood water. Use waterproof plasters.

* Both physical stress associated with overexertion in cleaning up premises and mental stress caused by temporary relocation may make you feel unwell. Indeed the major health hazard of floods comes from all the stress and strain of the event, not infection. If anyone does develop a tummy upset following flooding they should contact their GP practice for advice.

What are the likely health hazards from rats and other animals during flooding?

In developing countries leptospirosis (Weil's disease) can follow flooding. This is because the rats that carry the infection are washed out of their normal living spaces. Leptospirosis following flooding in the UK has not been commonly detected.

If the inside of your home is affected

* Remove dirty water and silt from the property including the space under the ground floor if you have wooden floors. This space may need pumping out.

* Clothing, bedding and other soft/fabric articles including children's toys etc should be laundered on a hot wash (60°C or the highest temperature indicated on manufacturer's instructions) which will destroy most germs that may be present. Other soft furnishings that have been contaminated and cannot be put in a washing machine will have to be professionally cleaned or, if this is not possible, may have to be disposed of.

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* Wash down all hard surfaces with hot soapy water until they look clean.

* Allow to thoroughly dry - this will also help to destroy germs left behind.

* Heating and good ventilation will assist the drying process.

* If the floodwater contained oil, diesel etc this should in the main be removed with the floodwater and silt. Any remaining oil, diesel etc contamination in accessible areas can be removed by using a detergent solution and washing the surface down after initial cleaning has been carried out. In inaccessible areas such as under floorboards it may present an odour problem but is not necessarily a health hazard. Further advice should be sought from Environmental Health if the odour persists or if you are particularly concerned about it for other reasons.

Returning to your home

It is recommended that you only fully re-occupy your home once the above cleaning has been carried out. There may be additional works to be carried out eventually as advised by your insurance company, housing officer, landlord, builder etc.

Help for vulnerable and elderly people returning to their houses is available from Social Services Department of the local Health and Social Care Trust.

Food preparation and storage

* Don't eat any food that has been covered by or come into contact with floodwater.

* Ensure all surfaces that food will come into contact with are sound and disinfected. If work tops and other areas show signs of damage, avoid food contact with these areas. Particularly make sure that the shelves including those in your refrigerator where food is stored are cleaned and disinfected.

* Food preparation surfaces should be wiped down using hot tap water containing washing-up-liquid, and dishes and other utensils should also be washed in hot tap water containing washing-up-liquid.

* Frozen food that has been at ambient temperature for a few hours should be discarded. Put contaminated flood-damaged food in black plastic refuse sacks, seal and put out when your next refuse collection is due. Check with insurers before disposal. Don't be tempted to try and salvage damaged food - including tins as they may be contaminated with sewage and chemicals left from the floodwater.

* Caterers should seek detailed advice from Environmental Health Officers (EHOs).

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