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IRENE’S AFTERMATH | THE CLEANUP

As waters recede, threat of mold rises

By Deborah Kotz
Globe Staff / August 31, 2011

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As power slowly gets restored to residents after Tropical Storm Irene hit on Sunday, thousands must now deal with flooded basements, bedrooms, and living rooms - and possibly mold.

The worst of the damage occurred in Western Massachusetts along the Vermont border - where the storm dumped the largest rainfall- as overflow flooded homes all along the Deerfield River basin where some 100,000 residents live.

“We expect flood waters to stay elevated for a few days, rather than normally receding within a day after a storm,’’ said Peter Judge, public information officer for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. “That means water in yards and basements won’t go away quickly.’’

Unfortunately, these homeowners may find themselves dealing with the aftermath of water left stagnant for more than a day or two: pervasive mold.

While mold doesn’t cause serious health problems for most people, it can cause eye irritation, a runny nose, coughing, skin rash, and a sore throat in people who are allergic. It can also trigger wheezing and shortness of breath in asthmatics who have allergies, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We tell people who have water in their homes to deal with it within the first 24 hours if possible,’’ said Leon Bethune, environmental health division director at the Boston Public Health Commission. Homeowners need to protect themselves before entering a flooded area by donning rubber boots, gloves, a jacket, and pants, he advised, because flood water can be contaminated with viruses, bacteria, and chemicals like oil or gasoline.

With the shutdown of Greenfield’s waste water treatment plant following the storm, raw sewage has been flowing into the Deerfield River, state health officials reported yesterday. This sewage could also be seeping into flooded homes.

Most homeowners will find that flood waters recede on their own, but those who still have standing water should bail it out with buckets or call their local fire department for help, recommended Christine Rogers, an environmental health scientist in the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences. Her husband’s bookstore in Shelburne Falls filled with 4 feet of water after the storm, she said, but the flooding receded on its own.

“We’ve opened all the windows in the store, taken out all the wet books, and are running fans continuously to dry things out over the next few days,’’ she said. Those actions can prevent the growth of mold if taken within a day or two after the flood. “The sunny weather we’re having is great for drying out wet furniture,’’ she added, “so it should be brought outside on a day like today.’’

Mold may still appear on walls and other surfaces over the next few days, but that doesn’t necessarily require calling a professional for remediation. Moldy carpets should be discarded, said Rogers, but small, nonporous surfaces - like cement walls or tile floors - can be cleaned with detergent and water. Porous drywall should be sprayed with a diluted solution of one cup bleach in a gallon of water, to kill mold spores beneath the surface.

Those with mold allergies or asthma should not perform the cleanup.

Homeowners who encounter pervasive mold spread and flood damage should call MASS211, the state’s emergency help line, if they do not have flood insurance. The call center is taking information on damage, said Judge, to ascertain whether public properties and certain uninsured residents will qualify for federal aid to repair storm damage.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com.

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