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Sanitation in Disaster Situations

Discover how sanitation can remain a priority in disaster situations.

Maintaining good hygiene and sanitation can be a challenge when a disaster occurs. Since many disease-causing organisms thrive and spread under conditions where there is flooding, fire or a lack of safe drinking water, it’s important to take steps to protect the health and safety of everyone in your household.

Proper Handwashing

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most important thing you can do to keep from getting sick and spreading illness is to wash your hands. Proper handwashing consists of the following steps:

  • Wet hands with clean, warm water.
  • Apply soap and rub soapy hands together vigorously for at least 20 seconds, being sure to get under the nails where dirt and germs can hide.
  • Rinse with clean water and dry with clean towels.

While hand sanitizers can help kill germs, they are not as effective as handwashing at removing dirt and soil. It’s best to wash your hands first with soap and water and then use a hand sanitizer.

Sanitizing Homes

When surfaces in homes are exposed to flood waters, fire or other potentially harmful residues, they need to be properly cleaned and sanitized. To avoid pushing dirt or bacteria further into your home, always start the cleaning process where food is prepared and work outward into the rest of the home.

Surfaces should first be rinsed to remove visible dirt residue, and then washed with a mixture of hot water and detergent. After cleaning, rinse the surface with clean, potable water and allow to air dry. Sanitizing can be accomplished using a bleach solution of 5 tablespoons (1/3 cup) bleach per gallon of water or 4 teaspoons bleach per quart of water. Submerge or spray and leave on for one minute, rinse thoroughly and allow to air dry.

Use care when cleaning specialty surfaces such as granite countertops. These types of surfaces need to be cleaned and sanitized according to the manufacturer’s instructions to avoid damaging the material.

When in Doubt, Throw it Out

Some products and materials in our homes simply can’t be cleaned sufficiently to make them safe. For example, household furnishings such as mattresses that have been in contact with flood waters may be contaminated with mold or bacteria, so it’s best to throw them out. Water-damaged furnishings such as carpets, stuffed toys and upholstered furniture should also be discarded unless they can be restored through steam cleaning or hot water washing and thorough drying.

Dishes and cookware that have been contaminated may be able to be cleaned and sanitized if they are made from heat-resistant materials. Wash the item in hot soapy water, rinse with potable water and then immerse the item in hot water that is at least 171° F for 30 seconds. If a potable water supply has been restored to your home, you can also use the dishwasher’s sanitizing cycle if the unit is certified to NSF/ANSI 184: Residential Dishwashers.

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