Children’s Health in the Aftermath of Floods
- Children’s nervous, immune, digestive and other bodily systems are still developing and are more easily harmed;
- Children eat more food, drink more fluids, and breathe more air than adults in proportion to their body size – so it is important to take extra care to ensure the safety of their food, drink and air;
- The way children behave – such as crawling and placing objects in their mouths – can increase their risk of exposure to chemicals and organisms in the environment.
- Children, Adolescents, & Pregnant Women Should Not Participate in Flood Cleanup Activities
- Carbon Monoxide Poisoning and Portable Generators
- Contaminated Drinking Water
- Household Items Contaminated by Floodwaters
- Other Flood Topics
- PEHSU Fact Sheets
- Additional Resources
Toxic materials can hitch a ride to a volunteers’ (or workers’) home and family, on their hair, skin, clothing and shoes.ii,iii To protect their families, adult workers should have PPE which they put on before entering the site and remove before returning home. Workers need to be able to leave their shoes at the worksite. (Workers also need the opportunity to wash before eating during lunch and breaks so that they do not ingest toxic materials with their food.)
After homes have been flooded, moisture can remain in drywall, wood furniture, cloth, carpet, and other household items and surfaces and can lead to mold growth. Exposure to mold can cause hay-fever-like reactions (such as stuffy nose, red, watery or itchy eyes, sneezing) to asthma attacks. It is important to dry water-damaged areas and items promptly to prevent mold growth. Buildings wet for more than 48 hours will generally contain visible and extensive mold growth.
Some children are more susceptible than others to mold, especially those with allergies, asthma and other respiratory conditions. To protect your child from mold exposure, you can clean smooth, hard surfaces such as metal and plastics with soap and water and dry thoroughly. Flood water damaged items made of more absorbent materials cannot be cleaned and should be discarded. These items include paper, cloth, wood, upholstery, carpets, padding, curtains, clothes, stuffed animals, etc.
If there is a large amount of mold, you may want to hire professional help to clean up the mold. If you decide to do the cleanup yourself, please remember:
- Clean and dry hard surfaces such as showers, tubs, and kitchen countertops.
- If something is moldy, and can't be cleaned and dried, throw it away.
- Use a detergent or use a cleaner that kills germs.
- Do not mix cleaning products together or add bleach to other chemicals.
- Wear an N-95 respirator, goggles, gloves so that you don't touch mold with your bare hands, also wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and boots or work shoes.
If your children or anyone else in your family starts to feel sick, dizzy or weak or experiences a headache, chest pain or confusion, get to fresh air immediately and seek medical care as soon as possible. Fetuses and infants are especially vulnerable to the life-threatening effects of carbon monoxide.
Install a carbon monoxide detector that is Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL) approved (such as UL). These are generally available at local hardware stores. Carbon monoxide is lighter than air, so detectors should be placed closer to the ceiling. Detectors should be placed close enough to sleeping areas to be heard by sleeping household members.
Learn more about carbon monoxide from the PEHSUs, American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the EPA.
Your child may or may not show symptoms or become ill from swallowing small amounts of contaminated drinking water. Symptoms can vary by contaminant. If your child drinks water contaminated with disease-causing organisms, he/she may come down with symptoms similar to the “stomach flu.” These include stomach ache, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, and possibly dehydration.
Some contaminants, such as pesticides and gasoline, may cause the water to smell and taste strange, and others such as lead and disease-causing organisms may not be detectable. Drinking water contaminated with chemicals such as lead or gasoline may not cause immediate symptoms or cause your child to become ill but could still potentially harm your child’s developing brain or immune system.
Private Wells: If you have a flooded well, do NOT turn on the pump, and do NOT flush the well with water. Contact your local or state health department or agriculture extension agent for specific advice on disinfecting your well. View more information on how to manage a flooded well.
Public/City Water Supply: Your public water system or local health agency will inform you if you need to boil water prior to using it for drinking and cooking. View additional information about emergency disinfection of drinking water.
Tap water that has been brought to a rolling boil for at least 1 minute will kill disease-causing organisms. Boiling will not remove many potentially harmful chemicals, and may actually increase concentrations of heavy metals (including lead), which can be harmful to a child’s developing brain. Chemically treating tap water with either chlorine or iodine will kill many disease-causing organisms, but will not remove harmful chemicals or heavy metals.
Health professionals can learn more about lead in drinking water in this fact sheet from the PEHSUs.
Kitchenware and Utensils: In general, metal and glazed ceramic that are thoroughly washed and dried can be sanitized and kept. Follow local public health guidance on effective and safe sanitation procedures. Wood items must be thrown away, as these items can absorb contaminants or grow mold from the exposure to flood water and they cannot be properly sanitized.
Children's Toys and Baby items: Throw away ALL soft or absorbent toys because it is impossible to clean them and they could harm your child. Throw away ALL baby bottles (unless glass bottles are sterilized), nipples, and pacifiers that have come in contact with flood waters or debris.
Bleach: Household bleach contains chlorine, a very corrosive chemical which can be harmful if swallowed or inhaled. It is one of the most common cleaners accidentally swallowed by children. Children – especially those with asthma – should not be in the room while using these products. Call Poison Control at (800) 222-1222 immediately in case of poisoning.
Formerly Flooded or Debris-filled Areas: Children in these areas may be at risk of exposure to dirt and debris that may have been contaminated with hazardous chemicals like lead, asbestos, oil and gasoline. Children can be exposed by direct contact through their skin, by breathing in dust particles or fumes, or by putting their hands in their mouths.
Mosquitoes and Disease-Causing Pests: Receding flood water may increase the number of mosquitoes and other disease-causing pests. To protect your child, ensure that they use insect repellents containing up to 30% DEET (N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide), Picardin, or Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus. The AAP recommends that DEET not be used on infants less than 2 months of age and that Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus not be used on children under 3 years of age. Other ways to protect children include staying indoors while the sun is down, wearing light colored, long sleeved shirts and pants, covering baby carriages and playpens with mosquito netting, clear areas of standing water, and empty water from flower pots and other containers.
The AAP has more information on selecting an insect repellent for children.
- Return of Children to Areas Impacted by Flooding or Hurricanes: Recommendations for Parents and Families
- Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Children: Guidance for Parents and Families
- Mold in the Home and School: Guidance for Parents and Families
For Health Professionals
- Helping Families Deal with the Stress of Relocation after a Disaster (CDC/ATSDR) (PDF)
- Keeping Children Safe after Hurricane Harvey (FEMA)
- Children & Disasters: Flash Floods/Flood Recovery (AAP)
- Clinician Recommendations Regarding Return of Children to Areas Impacted by Flooding and/or Hurricanes: A Joint Statement from the PEHSUs and the AAP
- Damp Indoor Spaces and Health (National Academies of Science Engineering & Medicine/CDC)
For the General Public
- Protecting Children's Health During and after Natural Disasters (EPA)
- Flash Flood Recovery Information for Families (AAP)
- Talking to Children about Disasters (AAP)
- Taking Care of Yourself During Disasters: Info for Parents (AAP)
- Guide to Choosing an Insect Repellent for Your Child (AAP)