A water damaged home, ravaged by a flood, is not a pleasant place to return to when you look at the destruction that the flooding has wrought. More than aesthetics, however, is the concern about the effects on our health and wellbeing. Many people do not realize that water damage brings with it consequences that at times could be outright dangerous to human life and health. Some, if not prevented or treated immediately, may even be fatal.
When is water damage to a home considered dangerous? Although important, this is a question many flood victims do not even think about. Here are some of the things water damage may cause, and we explain how serious they are and how to avoid them.
Mold Contamination and Infection
Molds are multi-cellular fungi that grow both indoors and outdoors, usually in damp environments. They spread and reproduce through spores, which are lightweight and therefore travel quickly in the air. Molds can resist dry environmental conditions and can survive for a long time.
Molds need moisture to grow, and water damage on wood, wallpaper, upholstery, and even the dust, can be sources of nutrients for them. If your home has been submerged in water for some time the water would have seeped into the wood and your carpets, making these the perfect nurturing environment for mold growth. Even heating ducts and air conditioning units are candidates for mold growth as well.
What many people don't know is that molds that grow after water damage can be toxic. Some varieties of molds produce toxins - called mycotoxins - that are harmful to human health. This means that the spores flying in the air - which you cannot see with the naked eye - could be carrying toxins that you could get through skin contact, inhalation, or even ingestion.
People whose immune systems are compromised are more in danger of getting mold infections than healthy ones. Those with asthma, allergies, or other breathing problems are susceptible, as well as people with HIV infections, cancer patients on chemotherapy, and people who have received organ transplants. Children and the elderly, as well as pregnant women have a bigger risk of getting mold infection.
So what can exposure to molds do? A person who has contracted mold infection may experience a stuffy nose, irritated eyes, skin irritation, wheezing, headaches and nausea. Shortness of breath and difficulty in breathing may be felt as well. Those with weakened immune systems and chronic lung diseases could develop mold infections in their lungs. In addition, even healthy people may contract allergies, asthma, or hay fever with prolonged or extensive exposure to molds.
Is this dangerous? Yes, most definitely. Although nobody has been heard to die of mold infection, this could lead to further weakening and complications, especially for those with already compromised immune systems.
How does one know if the house has mold after water damage? Sight is the first indication - if your walls and ceiling are discolored or you see some mold growth, usually white in color, then you've got it. Mold growth also comes with a musty, earthy smell. In some cases, the smell could be outright foul.
After the flood waters have receded and you return to your home, it is important that you clean the entire house in order to get rid of the mold growth and prevent contamination and infection. First, you will need to open all your doors and windows to let fresh air in, and use fans or dehumidifiers to dry out the insides of your house.
Next comes the cleanup stage. Remove all the items in the house that had been submerged in water for over 48 hours, and cannot be thoroughly cleaned and dried. Keeping them inside will only allow the mold to grow further. You may have to strip your carpet and carpet padding off the floor, rip off the wallpaper, and take that sofa out of the house. As cleaning and drying these - if they can be restored at all to serviceable state - is something you cannot do on your own, it would be best to bring them to a professional service. Some items, like your carpet, will have to be thrown away. Don't forget to clean the walls and ceilings too.
Clean the wet items and surfaces with detergent and water. You can also use bleach and water so that there is some disinfecting effect. When cleaning with bleach, never combine it with ammonia, because the fumes from the combination of these chemicals can be fatal.
Cleaning after water damage may be good enough for non-porous materials such as metal and plastic, but will not work for porous materials like wood. If your floor is made of wood and was submerged in water for several days, you will have to have that flooring taken out and replaced.
We advise you to wear protective clothing while you are cleaning. You will need a face mask and gloves at the very least, and perhaps goggles and rubber boots as well.
Besides embarking on the cleaning task, it would be a good idea to call in a mold specialist to measure the mold count, see if there are any other areas in your house where molds have begun to grow, and recommend further chemical treatment. Although not generally used, specialists may advise the use of biocides or other chemicals to kill the mold, depending on the extent of the growth, especially if the water damage is extensive.
Electrocution and Fire
How does water damage to appliances cause electrocution? We already know that if your hands are wet and you touch a plugged appliance or plug something into an electric outlet, you're going to get an electric shock. The same thing will happen if you're standing on a wet or damp floor and plug an electric appliance into a wall outlet.
Now, think of it the other way around. Let's say your home has been submerged in water and your electric outlets and maybe an appliance or two were below the water line - the danger of electrocution is just as grave. When the interior of your home is submerged in a flood, water seeps into the holes in the electric outlets and appliances and stays there. Because the water is not directly exposed to air, it will take some time to dry.
Even if your hands are completely dry, when you plug an outlet into the socket or turn on an appliance - a toaster, for example - the chances are that an explosion will occur, caused by the reaction of electricity with water. Even more dangerous than this is the other consequence - fire.
A short circuited electric system caused by water that has seeped into the wiring will cause an explosion. In certain cases that explosion could lead to a fire.
Water damage to electrical systems could also result in a fire slowly building up. Frayed wiring with the exposed wires accidentally touching each other may cause one. If you see sparks frowires or cables or smell something burning after water damage, a fire may be slowly starting somewhere inside your house.
How do you prevent electrocution and fire, then? If you evacuated your home before or during the flood and are now coming home, the first thing you need to do is shut off all electricity on the circuit breaker. It is advisable that you return to your house during the day so that there will be enough light to conduct your inspection.
If the floor where your main circuit breaker is located is wet, call an electrician to shut the power off. Do not ever, at any cost, turn it off while you are standing on a pool of water.
Avoid using electric outlets and appliances that have been submerged in water. These will have to be inspected by an electrician. Appliances will have to be taken to a professional service for drying and maybe rewinding of the electrical system, or thrown away. Most likely, you will need to have the electrical system in your house rewired after the water damage, in order to avoid any likelihood of further short circuiting.
And the most important thing - if you see sparks or smell something burning when you return home, shut off the electricity and leave.
Infection from Rats
There is a relatively rare but sometimes fatal danger that could result as a consequence of water damage, and that is disease infection from rats. Rats are notorious carriers of bacterial and viral diseases. Two of these - Leptospirosis and the Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) - are transmitted by rats through their urine, droppings and saliva, and can contaminate humans that come in contact with water carrying these.
Leptospirosis, a bacterial disease, can cause kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, and respiratory distress and failure in humans. Symptoms include severe headaches, chills, high fever, vomiting, muscle aches, abdominal pain, diarrhea, or rashes. The Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome, on the other hand, is a viral disease that causes hemorrhagic fever and renal failure, and exhibits the same symptoms as Leptospirosis. Both Lestospirosis and HPS can be fatal.
To avoid contamination from infested water after a flood, never walk on the floor with your bare feet, or touch wet surfaces with your bare hands. Though rare, these diseases are extremely harmful and even fatal in some cases to human beings.