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Cleaning and Disinfecting Textiles After the Flood

Clothing and household textiles that are wet and soiled by floodwaters must be cared for immediately. Three steps will help clean many washable textiles.

1. Remove muddy residue by hosing down, rinsing, soaking or prewashing.
Use cold or cool water and laundry detergent to remove as much mud as possible. Avoid hot water since it may set stains.

Separate wet items to keep clothing colors from running together, and sort out clothing that must be drycleaned.

Washing machines that have been flooded should be cleaned, dried out and checked by an electrician. Then disinfect the washer by running 1 cup of chlorine bleach through a cycle with no fabrics.

If a washing machine is available, use the prewash or prerinse spin-out cycle that includes a short soak period. If your washer doesn't have an automatic prewash cycle, manually set the controls to agitate and then spin. Don't dry these prewashed textiles in a dryer; the heat may set stains.

If it's impossible to complete this prerinse step immediately, ring out as much excess moisture as possible, even with soil in the fabrics. Lay the items out to dry, but don't use a clothes dryer. The heat will set the mud and other stains, making them more difficult to remove. Dry clothes on outdoor lines or indoors at air or room temperature with fans at cross ventilation, air conditioning or dehumidifiers.

Leaving wet clothes and other fabrics piled in a heap provides the moist, warm and dark conditions perfect for mildew growth. Mildew is a growing organism that can permanently damage most textile fibers, especially natural fibers such as cotton, linen, rayon and wool.

2. Pretreat stains.
A prewash soil and stain remover works well on oil-based stains like animal fats, body oils, cooking oils, cosmetics and motor oils.

An enzyme presoak works well on protein stains like blood, body fluids, dairy products and grass.

3. Wash and disinfect textiles.

  • Use plenty of water and small loads so clothes have room to agitate well.
  • Use hottest water safe for fabrics.
  • Use slightly more laundry detergent than recommended on the package. Liquid detergent dissolves quicker, but granular or heavy-duty liquid holds the dirt in suspension better.
  • If clothing was contaminated with sewage, chemicals or other toxic materials, use a disinfectant in the wash. For colorfast or white textiles, add 1 cup chlorine bleach in the wash cycle. However, if there is a large amount of iron in soil deposits or in the water, chlorine bleach can cause rust stains to appear on fabrics. For fabrics that cannot be washed with bleach, add 1 cup of pine oil disinfectant such as Pine-Sol or 1 cup of phenolic disinfectant such as Lysol to the wash.
  • Wash the textiles as many times as needed before drying them. Don't dry in the dryer until you're satisfied with the results since the dryer can set stains, making them impossible to remove.
  • High temperature drying will also help sanitize clothing, assuming it is clean after laundering. Another sanitation strategy is pressing with a hot iron. This may be helpful for some cotton clothes and bed linens.

Dryclean-only Clothes
Drycleanable clothes, if worth salvaging, should be sent to the drycleaner. Air or line dry, then take to the drycleaner to see if salvageable. The chemicals in the cleaning process and the high-temperature team pressing will sanitize them.

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