Flooding and how to protect your health

Risk of drowning or other accidents:
  • Drowning and injury are the clearest and most immediate health risks during floods.
  • Do not underestimate the power and force of floodwater - 150 mm (six inches) of fast flowing water can knock you over and 600mm (two feet) of water will float your car.
  • Be mindful that manhole covers may have come off and that there may be other hazards and obstacles hidden beneath flood waters.

Protecting yourself and others:

  • Walking and driving through flood water may not be safe - flooded roads that appear shallow could be deeper than you think - get tips from www.rsa.ie.
  • With prolonged flooding roads and pathways may become damaged and unsafe and unexpected drops may occur - take great care when out and about, especially in the dark.
  • Wear appropriate clothing and footwear.
  • Use personal protective equipment (PPE) as appropriate.
  • Children should not play in or near floodwater or around pumps or sandbags.
  • In coastal areas and on seaside paths, keep well back from the edge as large waves or high winds could easily sweep you off your feet.

Back to top

Carbon monoxide poisoning:
  • Carbon monoxide can be produced when ANY fuel is burnt, including oil, gas, wood, coal, petrol and diesel. If a person is exposed to carbon monoxide over a period of time it can cause illness and even death.

Protecting yourself and others:

  • Petrol or diesel generators and other fuel driven equipment should never be used in unventilated spaces:
    • The exhaust gases contain carbon monoxide which, without good ventilation, can quickly build up to poisonous levels.
    • The same risk is carried by portable grills, camp stoves, paraffin- fuelled heaters or other devices using gasoline, propane or natural gas.  These should only be used in well-ventilated spaces.   
  • If you experience dizziness, headaches or disorientation, the appliance should be switched off, you should move to a well-ventilated area and seek medical advice.

Back to top

Risk of infection from floodwater:
  • During flooding, bacteria become diluted and the risk of infection is likely to be low - however, precautions should be taken.

Protecting yourself and others:

  • Wherever possible, try to avoid coming into direct contact with floodwater, especially if it is obviously contaminated with sewage.
  • If you have to go into the water, wear appropriate protective clothing especially waterproof gloves and rubber boots and remember to be careful of hidden dangers.
  • Wash your hands - this is the most important way to get rid of harmful bugs:
    • Use clean, warm water, if available, with soap.
    • Wash and dry your hands:
      • after going to the toilet,
      • before eating or preparing food,
      • after being in contact with floodwater, sewage or with items that have been in the water.
    • Use cold water if there is no warm water.
    • Use wipes or alcohol gel if there is no water.
  • Keep any open cuts or sores clean and prevent them from being exposed to floodwater - wear waterproof plasters.
  • Food that has been touched or covered by floodwater or sewage should not be eaten.
  • Do not eat any produce grown in a garden that has been flooded unless the produce has been washed and cooked.

Back to top

Risk from contaminated water supply:
  • Sometimes flood water will enter a water supply or damage a treatment system.

Protecting yourself and others:

  • If your water is sourced from a private supply such as a well, then check that it has not been affected by the flood water.
  • If the private well has been covered by flood water or if the colour, taste or smell has changed or if you believe the supply has been affected by the flood, assume the water is unsafe to drink unless boiled or sourced elsewhere.
  • In the event of contamination of a public water supply you will be advised by the water services authority.

Back to top

Infant formula:
  • If there is a problem with your drinking water, bottled water can be safely used to make up infant formula.
  • If you are expecting a baby soon, you may wish to consider breastfeeding until flooding has resolved and conditions are safer.
  • It is best not to use bottled water labelled as "Natural Mineral Water" for making up formula. This type of water can have higher levels of sodium and other minerals. It can be used if no other water is available as it is important to keep babies hydrated. However, it should be used for as short a time as possible.
  • Ready-to-use infant formula, that does not need added water, can also be used.

Back to top

General advice about cleaning up safely after flooding:
  • All flood water should be considered contaminated, i.e. dirty.
  • Wash hands with soap and clean water before and after cleanup activities.
  • Cover cuts and sores with waterproof plasters.
  • Wear waterproof boots and plastic or rubber gloves.
  • If hosing or pressure washing, both of which cause a lot of splashing, you may use a face mask and/or goggles.
  • Take care with electrics, gas and sharp objects.
  • Follow manufacturers' instructions on cleaning products.
  • Keep children safe:
    • Store cleaning products, in their original containers, out of sight and reach of children.
    • Empty mop buckets and basins immediately after use.
    • Make sure children don't have access to garages or garden sheds which may be left open to dry them out. Remember that poisons, tools, heavy objects, etc are often stored there.

Back to top

Safety when using household bleach:
  • Keep all cleaning products out of reach of children at all times.
  • Use bleach with care and always follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Do not mix bleach with other cleaning products or chemicals. This may release dangerous gas.
  • Bleach can burn skin and cause permanent eye damage, particularly when it is in concentrated form (straight out of the bottle).
  • Avoid touching your eyes when handling bleach. If possible wear goggles. If bleach splashes into your eyes, rinse immediately with lots of cold water (for at least 15 minutes) and consult a doctor.
  • Wear rubber household gloves to protect your skin. Take off gloves and wash your hands with soap and water before using the bathroom, eating or smoking.
  • To protect your skin against splashes, wear old clothes that cover your arms and legs completely.
  • To dilute household bleach, follow the instructions on the bottle - usually 8 capfuls to 5 litres of water.
  • To avoid exposure to fumes open the container and prepare the solution outdoors or in a well-ventilated room and make sure the area you are working in is kept well-ventilated.
  • It is safer to add bleach into water rather than water to bleach.
  • Store household cleaning products in secure overhead cupboards. Use cupboard safety locks.
  • Throw away unused bleach solution following cleaning.
  • Empty basins and all buckets when finished and put away out of reach of children.
  • Brushes and sponges should be discarded when the cleaning is complete.

Back to top

What and how to clean:
  • Remove mud and dust.
  • Scrub hard surfaces (including walls, hard-surfaced floors and furniture) with hot soapy water and detergent.
  • Then disinfect the surfaces by wiping with bleach solution (follow manufacturer's instructions).
  • Do not use bleach on carpets or wooden floors as it can damage furnishings and fabric.
  • Clean and disinfect taps using dilute bleach if they were in contact with flood water and then run the taps for a few minutes.
  • Wash all delph, pots and pans and cooking utensils.
  • All food preparation surfaces and equipment must be cleaned thoroughly and disinfected (following manufacturer's instructions). Always move food out of the way or cover it to prevent chemicals getting into food.
  • Dispose of any food and packaging that had contact with floodwater.*
  • If your electricity has been off for more than 24 hours, the food in your freezer is probably not safe to eat and you should discard it.*
  • Wash bedclothes and other soft fabric articles, such as children's soft toys, on a hot cycle (60oC or higher) - this will destroy most germs that may be present.
  • Other contaminated soft furnishings that cannot be put in a washing machine will have to be cleaned professionally.

* If items are likely to be the subject of insurance claims, speak to your insurance company first.

Back to top

Drying out your home:
  • Ventilate your home well (open all doors and windows) – ensure all air bricks and vents are unblocked.
  • Allow cleaned surfaces to dry completely as germs and mould thrive in wet conditions.
  • Once your heating has been certified safe to use, it can be turned on to help dry out your home.  Keep the temperature around 20-22oC.

Protecting yourself and others:

  • Remember that petrol or diesel generators and other fuel driven equipment should never be used in unventilated spaces:
    • The exhaust gases contain carbon monoxide which, without good ventilation, can quickly build up to poisonous levels.
    • The same risk is carried by portable grills, camp stoves, paraffin-fuelled heaters or other devices using gasoline, propane or natural gas.  These should only be used in well-ventilated spaces.   
    • If you experience dizziness, headaches or disorientation, the appliance should be switched off, you should move to a well-ventilated area and seek medical advice.
  • Allow cleaned surfaces to dry completely as germs and mould thrive in wet conditions.

Back to top

Living in your flood damaged home:
  • Try to have some heating on at all times once it has been checked for safety.
  • Consider the use of a dehumidifier.
  • Ensure the property is well ventilated.
  • Leave windows open as much as possible but be mindful of security.

Back to top

Cleaning up outside your home:
  • Hard surfaces such as tarmac and concrete paths can be washed down with a bleach solution.
  • Stay off these surfaces for 3 hours after treating with bleach to allow the product to work.
  • Bleach can damage wood and metals so use a regular household detergent (washing up liquid) to clean these materials.
  • Do not dig or rake lawns or borders as this can spread the bacteria deeper in the soil. Ultraviolet rays from the sun will  destroy bacteria over time. This can vary from 6 days in the summer to 20 days in colder/winter conditions, depending on the soil type. 
  • Gardens (grass areas) should not be used for recreational purposes for about 2-3 weeks.
  • Make sure garden sheds are not accessible to children during drying out time.
  • Do not eat any food grown in a garden that has been flooded unless it has been washed and cooked.

Back to top

Rats and Pests:
  • Rats may move after flooding but they are generally wary of humans.
  • Put rubbish in hard bins or keep rubbish away from your home.
  • Avoid approaching rats.
  • If you are bitten by a rat, seek medical advice.

Back to top

If you feel unwell:
  • If you feel unwell during the current environmental emergency, this does not necessarily mean that you are suffering from any illness associated with flooding.
  • If you are concerned about yourself or a family member you are advised to contact your family doctor.
  • Both the physical stress associated with over-exertion in cleaning up premises and the mental stress caused by loss of important personal possessions, temporary relocation and financial loss may make you feel unwell.  
  • Remember that tiredness, difficulty sleeping and anxiety are normal in these circumstances and may go away with time.
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed, contact friends, relations or your family doctor.
  • The Samaritans may also be contacted by ringing 1850 60 90 90 (24 hours).

Back to top

Further information:
  • Leaflets
  • Websites:
    • www.carbonmonoxide.ie - protect your home from the dangers of this deadly gas by taking preventive measures and by learning to recognise the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning
    • www.safefood.ie - food safety advice for emergency situations
    • www.epa.ie - advice for private well owners affected by flooding
    • www.epa.ie - FAQs for wastewater treatment systems for single houses, including "What should I do if my septic tank is flooded?" and "Septic tanks - what to do after flooding?"
    • www.flooding.ie - from the Office of Public Works
    • www.hse.ie/childsafety - advice to help keep children safe from unintentional injuries/accidents
    • www.winterready.ie - be prepared, stay safe and know where to find help should you need it
    • www.esb.ie - updates on power disruptions
    • www.esb.ie - warning to the public and emergency services when accessing flooded areas in boats and flotation devices
    • www.gasnetworks.ie - advice for use of natural gas in cases of flooding
    • www.theaa.ie - summary of road conditions throughout the country from AA roadwatch
    • www.rsa.ie - top tips for road users in wet, flooded and windy conditions
    • www.ifa.ie - advice for farmers affected by flooding
    • www.met.ie - current national weather warnings
    • www.welfare.ie - if you have been affected by flooding and meet a means test you may be eligible for emergency financial assistance
    • www.redcross.ie - scheme to provide emergency humanitarian support to small businesses that have been unable to secure flood insurance and have been flooded following storms in December 2015 – January 2016
    • www.agriculture.gov.ie - Fodder Aid Scheme is being implemented in response to the long term damage to fodder supplies arising from the period of protracted flooding in December, 2015 and January, 2016
    • www.gov.uk - Public Health guidance from the UK

Back to top

Image: Floods by Mark Morton - Flickr Creative Commons