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Staying Safe When Cleaning Up After a Disaster

Article contributed by Emily Walsh, Community Outreach Director for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

When disaster strikes, fast action can save lives – that same sentiment often carries over to the recovery process. People with the ability to help those in need tend to move quickly so not to prolong the period of flux that homeowners find themselves in. Quick action should be the goal, but not at the expense of proper safety precautions. To ensure safety, construction companies should keep a few things in mind: the age of the structure, what materials were used in that time period, access to proper personal protection equipment, and any local specialists that can be consulted when necessary. Two commonly forgotten issues when dealing with flood recovery and reconstruction are mold and asbestos.

The exact specifications for optimal mold growth vary by the species of mold, however, it predominantly grows best in damp, warm environments. In addition to a specific climate, mold needs nutrients to grow – the availability of living nutrients in indoor environments rarely limits mold growth because wood, wallboard, wallpaper, upholstery, and dust can be nutrient sources as well.

After water has entered the structural elements of a building, mold begins to form immediately. It should be presumed that any structure flooded after a hurricane or major flooding can be contaminated with mold growth if not dried, cleaned or removed quickly. The first order of business is to begin the drying process – most mold growth begins after just 48 hours! Fans are friends. Once the drying process is started, a visible inspection of the building should be completed and a plan put in place to successfully remove all porous materials that could contain mold spores. Overlooking this step might render all your previous hard work pointless if remaining spores generate a second wave of mold growth.

Anything that cannot not be thoroughly dried and cleaned will need to be removed from the premises. Additionally, mold may have gotten into places that the flood waters seem to have missed, such as floor tiles. Remaining mold will spread and can further impact the health of the homeowners and those completing the reconstruction. Depending on the amount of water damage, it might be necessary to consult a mold remediation specialist to ensure all the mold spores are eradicated.

Construction employees and homeowners alike should be aware of the symptoms associated with mold exposure: skin and eye irritation, nasal stuffiness, and wheezing. People with allergies and COPD are more susceptible to health complications related to mold.

In addition to mold, asbestos is not often thought of when considering the hurdles following disaster situations. Asbestos is a known carcinogen that was widely used in building materials in the United States through the 1970s. The material is most often found in floor and ceiling tiles, insulation, cements, caulking, heating ducts, and vinyl wallpaper. Many times, major water exposure requires pulling up damaged flooring, cutting into drywall, and other disruptive construction, all possibly damaging old materials containing asbestos, releasing it into the air. If restoring a building or home constructed prior to the 1980s, an asbestos check should be completed before the first incision is made.

The microscopic toxin is harmful when the particles are inhaled and embedded in the lining of the organs where mesothelioma cancer forms. Symptoms, though varying based on location, most often impact lung functions and typically do not manifest until 20 to 40 years after asbestos exposure.

Using proper protection when working around asbestos, such as a respirator, is the only way to protect yourself. Products containing asbestos can be difficult to identify with the naked eye so proper protection equipment should be used at all times, and again, working with a professional abatement company for a second opinion would be the safest option for both contractors and homeowners.

Taking precautions when going into a disaster ravaged area can ensure the safety of all involved and enable a smoother recovery process.