Flood Information


| Share

Cleanup of Residential Oil Spills Associated with Flooding

Kenneth Hellevang, Extension Engineer

Your safety and the protection of your home and family are your first priority. Fuel oil may cause a fire and health hazard, so you may want to call your local emergency services. The vapors from fuel oil spills or leaks are extremely penetrating and volatile. Hiring a professional spill response company to assist in the removal of a release of heating oil is strongly recommended.

Report the Spill

Contact your oil delivery company to report the spill. You also should contact your home insurance agent, local public health unit and the North Dakota Department of Health, Division of Waste Management, at (701) 328- 5166. (See the Health Department’s Web site at www.ndhealth.gov/flood for more flood cleanup health and safety information.)

Take Safety Precautions

If not already done prior to flooding, shut down the furnace to minimize vapor distribution throughout the building. Keep flames and other sources of ignition away from the area. Ventilate the area by opening windows. Wear rubber gloves, overshoes and a proper respirator. Do not track oil from the spill area to clean parts of the house.

Potential Health Effects

Most of the information on the health effects of petroleum products in humans is based on inhalation exposure to petroleum product vapors. Exposure to high levels of petroleum products can cause health effects, primarily on the nervous and respiratory systems. People who inhaled elevated air levels of fuel oil vapors for short periods of time had nausea, increased blood pressure, eye irritation, headaches, light-headedness and poor coordination. Longer-term exposure to elevated levels of fuel oil vapors can cause similar effects on the nervous and respiratory systems and also may affect the blood, liver and kidneys. Petroleum products in contact with the skin may cause irritation and blistering in some people. The elderly, the very young and people with respiratory diseases may be especially sensitive to the effects of inhaling petroleum vapors. Long-term exposure to petroleum product vapors should be minimized to the extent practical. If petroleum odors are present, consider taking measures to reduce long-term exposures. If you are experiencing health effects, you should contact your physician or seek medical help.

Controlling Odors

Keep all doors, laundry chutes, etc., between the basement and living space closed. Stairways between the basement and the first floor living space that do not have a closable door should be partitioned off with a sheet of plastic. Avoid tracking oil in the home. Do not wear any shoes in the living space that may have been contaminated with oil.

Fans can help to control odors. The direction of fan airflow is critical to keeping odors out of the living space. Exhaust basement areas by blowing air out of the basement through a single window, with no other basement windows open. If the only opening to the outdoors is a walkout basement door, then a large fan should be placed in the doorway, blowing out. If possible, reduce the open space around fans (shroud) to increase the fan’s effectiveness. Any fans in the living space must blow air in from outdoors with other windows open minimally. Any windows near the basement exhaust air should be kept closed to prevent contaminated air from re-entering the home. Do not operate central heating or air conditioning. If the spill is under a mobile home, the skirting should be removed for aeration. Be prepared to aerate for a long period of time – days or even weeks.


If a layer of oil is floating on top of the water in a basement, minimize the amount of oil spread on walls and floors and the amount of other damage to your property by removing the oil before pumping the water out. For an oil film, oil-absorbent “socks” may be sufficient to collect the oil. Contact your local fuel supplier for a source of absorbent pads. For a thicker layer of oil, a vacuum truck may be necessary to skim the oil off the water. Do not pump the water into your yard before removing the oil because the oil may spread and contaminate other areas, including nearby wells, water bodies and homes. Contacting a waste oil or sanitary sewer hauler permitted for handling industrial waste usually is best. For a list of these haulers, contact the Division of Waste Management at (701) 328-5166.

The cleanup of a fuel oil spill is not complete until odors are gone. If fuel oil spills are promptly and completely cleaned up, residual odors should disappear normally after several days. Fuel oil absorbed into structural wood may be difficult to remove. Persistent odors indicate that a contaminated source has not been removed. These sources may include saturated cinder blocks, contaminated soils, wood materials and drywall, and oil in sumps or floor drains. These areas may need additional cleanup or removal and disposal at an approved landfill.

Oil-coated Belongings, Debris and Building Materials

Hard surfaces, such as glass or metal, can be cleaned with detergents, degreasers or other cleaners. Porous materials, such as removable wood, boxes, fabrics, Sheetrock or insulation, most likely will need to be discarded. Remove contaminated items and materials and place them outside the home. Stockpile discarded materials on plastic and cover with plastic. Use Oil-Dri, cat litter or other absorbent materials available at home improvement stores to absorb any remaining oil. Place nondripping material in doubled garbage bags. Seal the inner bag tightly and separately from the outer garbage bag.

Check with a professional cleaning company for information on cleaning or deodorizing household furnishings.

When performing any cleanup work, you should take steps to minimize exposure. For example, wear clothing that will help reduce skin exposure, such as long pants, long-sleeved shirts and gloves (rubber if available). Work in areas that have been ventilated as described above.

If the spill occurred on soil, remove as much of the impacted soil as possible.

Clean affected areas using degreasers. Remember that fuel oil is absorbed into concrete and wood, so it requires more than surface cleaning. Use products intended for petroleum removal that can be purchased from hardware stores. Removal will require several washing and rinsing operations. Odors should decrease after each application. Some homeowners have used steam cleaning. Plug the floor drain to prevent washing oil into the sanitary system.

If you cannot obtain cleaning products intended for petroleum, washing products such as Dawn Dishwashing Liquid, Simple Green and white vinegar have proven effective. Use products individually and mix with hot-as-possible water. Rinse with water after using the cleaning solution. If possible, collect the rinse water in towels or a shop-vac, or somehow divert the water from the house.

The use of chemical air fresheners is not recommended. These products merely mask the fuel odor by adding other volatile chemicals to an already complex mixture. Their use may increase symptoms and cause health problems in sensitive individuals.


If you have questions or need assistance, call your local public health unit or the North Dakota Department of Health Air Quality Division at (701) 328-5188 or the Waste Management Division at (701) 328-5166.

More Information

For more information, visit these Web sites:

Filed under: After the Flood, Flood, Cleanup, Home
Creative Commons License
Feel free to use and share this content, but please do so under the conditions of our Creative Commons license and our Rules for Use. Thanks.