June 2, 2004

Recent floods left Kentuckians with damaged clothing and furniture. Some items may be salvageable; others may need to be thrown away. Cleaning up these items can seem like an overwhelming task, but it does not have to be. 

Flood water can contain harmful bacteria, like sewage waste. Cleaning damaged clothes with normal laundry detergent and water will not kill bacteria from flood water, which can live in fabrics for a long time. 

“It is very important that you disinfect and clean your flood-soiled clothing,” said Patty Rai Smith, Extension family and consumer sciences specialist for the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. “When handling flood-soiled clothing, be sure to wear rubber gloves and protective clothing.” 

Proper sorting of the clothes reduces the number of harmful bacteria and prevents contamination of clean clothes. Smith said not to sort and mix flood-soiled clothes with uncontaminated clothes, and not to shake flood-soiled clothes around surfaces that will later be used to fold clothes. 

When cleaning the contaminated clothes, be sure to check the label to determine if they are washable or dry-clean only.

“As soon as you can, you need to get your clothes in a washing machine so mildew will not set up,” she said. “You cannot just shake and brush excess water off the clothes.”

Smith emphasized that using a disinfectant and hot water in the washing machine can effectively kill all bacteria.

She said the cheapest, easiest, and most accessible disinfectant to use is liquid chlorine bleach. The fiber content and color of the clothing determine if bleach can be used and the amount. Make sure to test the clothing first with two tablespoons of bleach to prevent any bleaching of clothing. To effectively kill the bacteria and sanitize the clothing, two cups per washer load are recommended. 

After the clothes are thoroughly washed and rinsed, the next step is to dry them. More bacteria is killed by drying clothes in a dryer than hanging them out on a clothes line. After you have dried the clothes make sure the storage area where you are going to put them has been disinfected, so bacteria will not get on your clean clothes. 

Upholstered furniture that has been in flood water may be impossible to save if it has been soaked,” Smith said. “If the piece is worth the effort, clean the springs, the frame and replace the stuffing.”

She also said to remove the coverings from the frame and wash them, if they are washable. Throw away all of the cotton stuffing. Wipe off the springs and frame, store the wood frames where they will slowly dry out. Mildew may develop on damp or wet furniture and can leave stains. Smith said to promptly remove it.

She summarized that with a little effort, many clothes and furnishings can be saved after floods.


Editor: Aimee D. Heald 859-257-4736, ext. 267
Source: Patty Rai Smith 859-257-7485