Flood victims returning home face health risks, experts say

Experts and city officials are warning flood victims to take health and safety precautions as they go back home because most of their belongings are likely contaminated.

Experts say flood-soaked belongings are likely contaminated with toxins

The basement of this home in Pierrefonds in Montreal's West Island is still flooded. The homeowners hope to be allowed to enter Monday to begin the cleanup. (CBC)

Water levels are finally receding in Quebec, allowing many homeowners to return home to begin the cleanup.

But experts and city officials are warning people to take health and safety precautions because most of their belongings are likely contaminated.

"It might not be possible to recover everything," warns Sarah Dorner, the Canada research chair in source water protection.

"The best thing to do would be to follow the public health advisories that municipalities issue — what people should throw in the garbage, what people can clean."

Sarah Dorner, a professor of civil engineering at the École Polytechnique and Canada research chair for source water protection, says people are better off throwing away items such as toys or chests of drawers that were soaked in the flood. (Radio-Canada)
Dorner says residents who are considering cleaning and keeping their belongings may have to think again because studies show that floodwaters are contaminated with toxins.

"It mixes with all of the chemicals in people's homes. It mixes with heating oil."

1st things to check

The City of Montreal says some residents who were forced from their homes can start to return today, once firefighters have carried out a preliminary inspection to make sure the premises are safe.

City officials are urging those residents to follow these tips as soon as they walk through their front doors:

  • Inspect the building's structure.
  • Test the smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detector.
  • Look for the presence of mould.
  • Document all the damage (photos, written log).

Homeowners who need more information about what to do once they go home, such as how to restore their electricity, gas or water, can call 311 or go to the city's civil security website for more information.

Dorner says the good news is that the seasonal fecal contamination caused by the annual snowmelt is long over. Her tests show E. coli contamination of the floodwaters in rivers is relatively low.

She says treated municipal drinking water should be OK to consume, but it's best to check with your municipality first.

With files from CBC's Justin Hayward