Raw sewage left untreated contains a variety of pathogens, chemicals and nutrients – many of which pose a serious health risk. Additionally, research shows billions of gallons of raw sewage flow into waterways every day, putting the health of millions of Americans at risk. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that up to 3.5 million people fall ill from swimming in water contaminated by sewage overflows each year.
When sewage backs up into the home, the overflow leaves behind germs on the surfaces with which it’s been in contact. The degree of danger depends on how long the sewage was in contact with a surface, the type of materials contaminated by sewage and how long the occupant was exposed to the sewage. Left untreated, exposure to sewage could leave you with gastrointestinal (GI) distress, hepatitis, skin rashes or infections. In extreme cases, sewage can also contain rat urine, which could lead to Weil Disease – which can result in liver and kidney damage if not treated and can be fatal.
While sewage germs are rarely airborne, in an emergency it’s important to seal off any backups until a professional can rectify the situation. If you must handle raw sewage to clean, always use protection, including rubber gloves, eyewear, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. If available, a breathing apparatus is highly recommended.
If you discover a backup, remember:
- Contact your warranty service provider and/or a local professional about the situation.
- If there is standing water near electrical appliances or outlets, turn off the power to that location.
- Do not flush toilets or drain sinks. If you must continue using sinks, plug the drain or use a bucket until the drains have been cleared.
- Keep children and pets away from the sewage.
- Wash your hands immediately after coming into contact with raw sewage and never touch it without gloved hands.
- If your home has a septic system, contact the local health department for advice on how to properly dispose of the water/sewage.
- Contact a professional to clean up large jobs to ensure you eliminate the possibility of health risks.
Sewer line breaks result in messes, which require cleanup. While many homeowners may roll up their sleeves to do the work themselves – you may consider hiring a professional cleaning agency that has the appropriate tools and necessary experience. The decision is one of personal choice that involves time, money and the extent to which a homeowner is willing to risk exposure to the health hazards.
While homeowner’s policies don’t cover repairs to a broken or leaking sewer pipe, some might cover the cleanup, so read your policy or call your insurance representative to determine coverage. If your homeowner’s policy provides coverage, it’s highly recommended that a professional restoration service be used. After assessing the extent of the damage, make a list of what you can do yourself and what you may want a professional to handle. This should include a minimum of replacing floor coverings and wallboards, checking the home’s foundation for cracks or splits and pitching any ruined materials or sending them out for professional cleaning. Sewage may have possibly contaminated your heating and air conditioning unit and duct work, so have it professionally serviced.
If you plan to do it yourself, experts suggest investing in professional cleaning gear to protect yourself from germs. This includes protective eyewear, gloves, boots, pants and long-sleeved shirts. Be sure to wear goggles and, if possible, a face mask when hosing off items to protect from back splashing. Remember to never touch contaminated materials with your bare hands and always wash your hands thoroughly after cleanup.
The Connecticut Department of Public Health suggests these tips when cleaning up sewage:
- Dry the space out, removing all water with a sump pump, wet vac or bucket. Many of these items and more can be rented locally.
- Control the temperature to improve the evaporation rate and ventilation.
- Collect and discard properly of all solid waste. Contact your local Health Department for instructions on discarding.
- Discard carpets, rugs and upholstered furniture. Wallboards or paneling with water stains should be cut above the water line and replaced. Generally, all porous materials contaminated by sewage should be discarded – such as cardboard boxes, paper items, books, magazines, mattresses, pillows, stuffed animals and anything else difficult to clean. Clothing may be salvageable if laundered professionally.
- Wash all contaminated areas with a detergent solution and then apply a disinfectant (anti-bacterial) or a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water. Disinfectants and/or bleach should be in contact with the items for 15 minutes or more to be effective and then allowed to air dry.
Whenever sewer backups happen, because of the health risks, it’s best to contact a professional restoration company for cleanup to ensure your home returns to its original state.