Sydney flood-contaminated items not safe for 'garbage pickers'

A health expert with Nova Scotia Environment says many items contaminated with sewage or furnace oil during flooding in Cape Breton are not safe to handle, even if cleaned.

Sewage and mould pose serious health risks, says Nova Scotia Enviroment health expert

The basement of this house in Sydney had to be gutted after the Thanksgiving Day flood. (Submitted by Theresa Rowe)

Some people make a hobby, or even a small income, from picking household items out of garbage left at the curb and fixing them up to sell.

But these "garbage pickers" are now being warned off hauling away home goods that were contaminated with sewage or furnace oil during the Thanksgiving Day flood in Cape Breton Regional Municipality. 

Flood victims have been told to leave all their damaged or destroyed items on the curb for special collection, to prevent disease or mould inside their homes.

"It's well known that sewage contains many different types of biological agents," said Bill Rideout, the acting manager of environmental health with the Nova Scotia Department of Environment.

"It contains viruses, bacteria that can make people sick. So if people were to come in contact with sewage, if there was some accidental ingestion of sewage, or even if it came in contact with mucus membranes such as eyes and nose, it can cause some infection." 

Workers with the Cape Breton Regional Municipality have been collecting garbage since the area was hit with a severe rainstorm last week. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Bringing home mould

Chlorine bleach may be effective in disinfecting hard plastic items such as children's toys, but upholstered furniture and wood items can't be cleaned that way, Rideout said.

Mould is another possible hazard, he said.

"Mould essentially requires a source of moisture and a source of food to grow," Rideout explained. "When building materials become wet, they can promote the growth of mould on them.

"So, some of the health effects would be difficulty breathing, perhaps watery or itchy eyes, runny nose, so more respiratory-type symptoms."

A pile of contaminated household items. (Submitted by Theresa Rowe)

Mould can also spread throughout a home once it's introduced from a contaminated item, he said.

It's just not safe

Rideout acknowledged the Department of Environment has no legal authority to prevent pickers from taking away contaminated garbage.

No one else may have that authority, either, but Cape Breton Regional Police are also warning people to leave contaminated garbage alone.

"Searching through these materials can pose a significant health and safety risk," said spokeswoman Shannon Kerr.

"Additionally, if an appliance has been affected by water damage, it poses a serious fire safety risk if plugged in."

The opportunity to rummage through flood garbage may be short-lived, in any event.

The municipality is picking it up on regular collection days and has hired contractors to speed up the process.