Dangerous dirt? Why experts say you should protect yourself during flood cleanup

Published: Aug. 7, 2023 at 6:08 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Throughout flood recovery, there’s been talk of “toxic sludge” even though environmental officials say the muck is probably not full of hazardous materials. But experts say you should still take steps to protect yourself while you’re cleaning out.

“Gloves, long pants, N95 masks if you have them,” said Matt Chapman of the Vt. Department of Environmental Conservation.

The Vermont DEC has responded to more than 160 calls of hazardous spills since July’s flooding.

“It’s things like petroleum from your home heating system. Things often in your basements like paint, turpentine, many cleaning products,” Chapman said.

But he says most of the muck people are cleaning is just plain dirt and river sediment.

“There was a lot of mud downtown,” Chapman said. “We had anywhere from a couple of inches to a couple of feet in people’s basements.”

Those in Montpelier say while most mud has been hauled out, there’s still plenty of dirt drifting around.

“We’ve heard a lot of volunteers come back and say there was an irritant outside their homes and businesses,” said Jimmy Marino who works in Montpelier.

“I think it’s still a little iffy. Not quite to where it was when the flooding happened– but we’re still dealing with particulates getting out and about on the streets as the wind blows them around,” said Marek Zhaac of Montpelier.

Dr. David Kaminsky, a pulmonologist at the UVM Medical Center in Burlington says it’s probably best to avoid breathing in polluted air.

“It’s dirt, but I also imagine aerosolized chemicals, molds, endotoxin, which is part of bacteria,” Kaminsky said.

But given people need to clean up and that may not be possible, he suggests protective equipment.

Kaminsky says those with pre-existing conditions face a risk of significant lung damage but those with healthy lungs can also experience long-term health problems if they aren’t careful.

“If they’re exposed to those things for an extended period of time they could get severe lung irritation and that could cause lung damage,” Kaminsky said.

Meanwhile, Chapman is encouraging people to call 802-828-1138 to report hazardous spills and get help cleaning them up.

For items people can safely remove themselves, there is a hazardous waste drop-off site in Middlesex.

“These contaminants for the most part break down pretty quickly in the environment. We can manage them and take them to a landfill or for appropriate treatment,” Chapman said.