Mold concernsMaintenance and custodial staff may be involved in cleaning up after damage from flood waters. More than likely, mold is the primary problem, but it is not the only hazard. Flood waters are likely to contain toxic chemicals and harmful bacteria, especially if flooding came from polluted rivers or bays, there are nearby industrial sites or underground industrial waste or storage sites, or sewage treatment plants in the area lost power or overflowed in the storm.
When staff can be involved: Large amounts of mold require professional remediation, involving enclosures and extensive personal protective equipment (PPE), much like an asbestos removal. If aggressive techniques must be used, such as pulling up damaged linoleum tile, the job should be treated like a large removal. However, staff may be involved in nonaggressive removal of small amounts of moldy material (less than 100 square feet).
If the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) system was submerged in flood waters, there may be a lot of dirt and debris as well as bacteria and mold. Schools should not run the HVAC system if staff know or suspect that it is contaminated, and staff should not clean it. Rather, the district must ensure that contaminated HVAC systems are professionally cleaned and repaired.
Health effects: Molds produce and release millions of spores small enough to be airborne. Most people are not affected by mold, but the spores of some molds can cause a wide range of respiratory effects, including allergies, asthma development and exacerbation, respiratory infections and bronchitis. Both asthma and bronchitis may have symptoms of shortness of breath, wheezing (sounds on exhalation) and coughing. People with asthma or sinusitis and those already allergic to mold are most at risk, but other people can develop allergies or asthma and suffer other effects. In addition, mold may cause eye and skin irritation.
Safe removal: The objective of safe mold removal is to prevent release of spores so workers and other building occupants don’t inhale them, and to avoid skin and eye contact with mold. Killing mold, as with bleach, is not enough, because even dead spores are allergenic. Nonporous materials, such as glass or metal, can be cleaned with a bleach solution.
The first step is to fix the cause of any water incursion, and dry wet areas using pumps, fans, blowers and/or dehumidifiers. Moldy porous materials can be removed using PPE (see box), and following these practices:
Floodwater often contains infectious organisms, including intestinal bacteria, Hepatitis A virus, and agents of typhoid and tetanus. All of these except tetanus cause similar symptoms if ingested from contaminated food or water, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, muscle aches, and fever. Tetanus, however, can be acquired from contaminated soil or water entering broken areas of the skin, such as cuts, abrasions, or puncture wounds.
Tetanus causes severe muscle spasms, known as lockjaw. The symptoms may appear weeks after exposure and may begin as a headache, but later develop into difficulty swallowing or opening the jaw. Before working in flooded areas, be sure your tetanus shot is current (given within the last 5 years). Have flood-caused wounds evaluated for risk.
If you know or suspect toxic or caustic chemicals are present, use chemical PPE (see box). Professional help may be needed for damaged asbestos-containing materials (pipe insulation and linoleum floor tiles) or lead (damaged lead paint).
The Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health (PEOSH) program standard requires that school districts provide hazard-appropriate PPE, and provide fit-testing, worker training, PPE maintenance, and disposal of contaminated PPE. Local associations should talk with their UniServ field reps to ensure this happens, and check the contract for other health and safety language.