La. Residents Need to Use Caution When Cleaning After Hurricanes

November 8, 2005

Workers and individuals cleaning homes and buildings damaged by recent hurricanes in Louisiana should remember to protect themselves from dangerous contaminants, particularly mold.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends everyone avoid unnecessary exposure to mold and cautions some people should avoid any exposure to the high concentrations of mold found in flooded areas.

Children younger than 12 years, transplant recipients, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, and people with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) should avoid exposure or should check with their doctor before entering hurricane-damaged areas. In addition, people with a known sensitivity to mold, those with asthma and other respiratory ailments, and pregnant women should avoid exposure to mold from cleaning, sweeping, or handling moldy objects.

“It is important residents returning to flood-damaged homes take notice of the cautions issued concerning dangerous contaminants, especially mold,” said Scott Wells, deputy federal coordinating officer for the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Even people with no known risk factors for mold should wear a filtering face mask and gloves if they plan to do anything more than look around and leave a building that has been flooded. Protective goggles should be added if work is to include sweeping, using sanders and other power tools, or if there is nearby demolition. The minimum breathing protection is a properly-fitted mask approved by CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Approved masks are available at hardware and building supply stores and will display “NIOSH N-95” on the band or on the respirator.

A visible dust cloud suggests a high potential for exposure to mold. However, exposure levels can be high even when no dust is visible. And remember, no simple mask will protect against the lethal hazard of chlorine gas released when bleach and ammonia are mixed. These two common cleaning agents never should be permitted to contact each other.

While mold is the most common health threat to workers and homeowners when cleaning after a hurricane, protection from other toxins and contaminants also may be necessary. Gloves protect hands from infectious materials and from irritating cleaning solutions; fitted goggles keep dust and small particles out of the eyes; protective clothing can keep damaging agents from contacting the skin and can prevent transfer of dangerous particles from one area to another.

“People with special health concerns should consult their doctor before risking exposure to mold,” said Col. Jeff Smith, State Coordinating Officer for the Louisiana Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

The CDC cautions that symptoms seemingly related to mold exposure may be due to other causes, such as bacterial infections or other allergies. In addition, it is possible that using respirators or other protective equipment may increase health risks for people with underlying health conditions. People who have trouble breathing while using a respirator should stop working and contact a doctor or other medical provider.

Sometimes the best precaution is to hire an expert. State health officials say that while mold can be removed by property owners, some instances of mold growth may require a specialist.

“Scrub mold off all hard surfaces (wall studs, floors, countertops) with a stiff brush using soapy detergent and water. Concrete and bricks may also be cleaned this way,” said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, state health officer. “But, if you don’t know how to clean an item, or if the item is expensive or of sentimental value, you may wish to call a specialist. Other items that cannot be cleaned should be thrown away.”

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