How to Wash Contaminated Clothes, Shoes, and Laundry After a Flood

Washing machine with clothes

Cris Cantón / Moment / Getty Images

Floodwaters not only damage structures, but the water also contains mud and bacteria that must be removed from clothing, shoes, and laundry equipment. Learn how washing contaminated clothes, leather shoes, mildew problems, and laundry room equipment touched by floodwaters can be done safely and effectively.

How to Wash Contaminated Clothes 

  1. Sort Clothes

    As soon as possible, sort soiled clothes and canvas shoes into piles of washable and dry clean only fabrics. 

    Tip

    Weigh the cost of multiple cleanings against the cost of the dry clean only clothing item. Replacing the clothes may be more cost-effective. If deemed worth saving, follow directions below for dry clean only clothes.

  2. Separate Colors

    Sort washable clothes into whites and colored clothing. Do not leave wet colored clothes mixed with whites because dye transfer can occur.

    Tips

    • Do not sort wet, contaminated clothing on surfaces where bacteria can be spread. Disinfect every surface that comes in contact with the contaminated clothing.
    • Do not store any wet clothing in plastic bags which encourages mildew growth and stains. If you cannot clean clothes immediately, spread out the dirty clothes and allow them to air dry individually before washing.
  3. Rinse Mud Off

    Using a hose, rinse as much mud as possible from both the dry clean only clothes and washable clothing, keeping the two categories separate. Do not put mud-covered clothing directly in the washer because the sludge can overwhelm the washer's drainage system.

  4. Hang Dry Clean Only to Dry

    Hang the dry clean only clothing to air dry away from direct heat and sun to ensure mildew and mold will not grow. As soon as possible, take the clothing to a professional dry cleaner. Be sure to tell the dry cleaner that the clothes have been in a flood.

  5. Wash Clothes

    Wash the washable clothes in the hottest water recommended for the fabric. To disinfect, for white cotton fabrics, add one cup of chlorine bleach in the wash cycle. For fabrics that cannot be washed with chlorine bleach (spandex, wool, silk, colored clothes), add one cup of pine oil disinfectant (Pine-Sol) or one cup of phenolic disinfectant (Lysol) to the wash cycle.

  6. Inspect for Stains

    After washing with a disinfectant, inspect the clothing for remaining stains. If stains remain, do not dry the clothing. Allow soiled clothing to soak overnight in a solution of oxygen-based bleach (brand names include OxiClean, Nellie's All Natural Oxygen Brightener, or OXO Brite) and then wash as usual with regular laundry detergent.

    Tips

    If the soil in the floodwaters is high in iron content, chlorine bleach can cause rust spots to appear on clothing. Separate treatment will be needed to remove the rust stains.

  7. Dry Clothes

    Dry clothing in a dryer at the highest heat recommended for the clothing to help kill bacteria. White clothes can be hung outside in the sun where ultraviolet rays will help kill bacteria.

How to Restore Leather Shoes After a Flood

Clean Leather Shoes After A Food
Drew Anthoney Smith / Getty News

Water is particularly damaging for leather dress or athletic shoes, handbags, hats, and clothes and floodwaters filled with mud and bacteria are even worse. In fact, most suede and nubuck boots and shoes cannot be salvaged after a flood. If minor damage is caught in time, however, you may be able to salvage leather goods damaged by floodwaters.

Tips

If the damage is caused by mildew, follow these tips:

  1. Use a soft brush to wipe away outside spores.
  2. Clean with a mild detergent solution and let air dry.
  3. Wipe down with rubbing alcohol to disinfect.
  4. Apply a leather conditioner.
  1. Remove Mud

    Remove mud from leather while the mud is still wet. Do this as soon as possible by using a hose with running water. Try not to scrape away the mud with anything sharp or rough-textured that can damage the leather.

  2. Detail With Cloth

    Use a soft damp cloth to remove the final bits of mud from stitching and intricate areas.

  3. Stuff Shoes

    Stuff shoes with tissue paper or paper towels to get them back into the proper shape. Newsprint can be used but the ink may transfer to the insoles. Do not use shoe trees because they may overstretch the leather.

  4. Dry Shoes

    Dry shoes at room temperature away from heaters and the sun. Excessive heat will harm the leather. A circulating fan can help speed the drying process by increasing airflow.

  5. Condition and Polish Shoes

    After the shoes are dry, clean with saddle soap, condition with a leather conditioner, and polish with a good shoe polish or cream. Do not wear the shoes until they are thoroughly dry or they may become misshapen and even crack or rip.

How to Disinfect a Contaminated Washer and Dryer

disinfect laundry room after flood
Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Washers and laundry rooms can be contaminated with bacteria after floods or a water main break. If your washer has been contaminated with floodwaters, you should clean and disinfect it before washing any contaminated items. Then, be prepared to clean it once again after washing clothes contaminated by floodwaters in it.

  1. Fill With Water

    Set the washer to the largest load capacity and fill with hot water.

  2. Add Bleach

    Add one cup of chlorine bleach.

  3. Run a Full Cycle

    Set the washer to a full cycle with a hot water rinse. Allow the washer to run through the entire cycle.

  4. Clean Exterior

    Clean the exterior of the washer and all other surfaces in the laundry room with a solution of chlorine bleach and hot water. Rinse with clean water.

Additional Maintenance Tips

  • If a washer has been through a flood, have a technician check the appliance before cleaning and using.
  • If a dryer has been contaminated by floodwater, have it checked by a technician and then wipe down the drum and outside of the dryer with a solution of chlorine bleach and hot water. Always rinse well with a cloth dipped in clear water before using it.

How to Prevent and Remove Mildew in the Laundry Room

Even without a flood, laundry rooms offer the perfect climate for mold growth. Mold is destructive to the structure of your home and can jeopardize health. Taking steps to control humidity, frequent checks for the beginnings of mold growth, and quick clean-up can keep problems at bay.

Keeping humidity in the laundry room below 50 percent will deter mold growth, prevent your dryer from working harder, and make you feel more comfortable. Humidity can be reduced with a dehumidifier, an open window, a good ventilation system, or a ceiling fan. If you live in a high humidity climate and your laundry room has poor ventilation, use a semi-gloss paint for the walls and ceiling that has an anti-mold and mildew agent added.

Clothes should be removed from the washer immediately and hung on a clothesline or dried in the dryer. Wet clothes can actually mildew in the washer. If they are removed without treating the mildew, spores can spread and cause more problems. Water connections to the washer should be checked frequently for leaks. Even if you don't see a leak, there could be hidden trouble. Using a dry hand or cloth, wipe around each connection to feel for dampness. A water leak will often cause walls to bubble or ripple. It can also cause mold to grow in the insulation behind the drywall. If you see a black or bluish stain on the wall, clean-up must begin immediately.

Washers, especially front-load models, can harbor mold and mildew spores. Frequent cleaning and leaving the door of the washer open after each cycle can help alleviate problems.

The build-up of dryer lint can also cause mold problems. Dryers should vent outside with an approved dryer vent. Check the vent frequently to ensure that it is securely attached to the dryer and is clear of lint. If you feel the transfer of air around the vent when the dryer is running, there are holes that are leaking moist air. Replace it as soon as possible.

Removing the lint from the dryer filter after each use is essential to keeping your dryer operating properly and preventing fires. Lint can also build-up in the dryer hose and around the outside vent encouraging mold growth. If you notice a musty smell in your dryer, it is time to clean the venting thoroughly.

At the first noticeable sign of mildew or whiff of mustiness, use a scrub brush and a solution of water and chlorine bleach (follow product label directions) to wipe down surfaces. Be sure to wear a mask and gloves to protect yourself from airborne spores. When cleaning the laundry, use an antibacterial spray or cleaning product to prevent regrowth. If the mold has grown on wood trim, drywall, or insulation, the area must be replaced to get rid of the mold infestation.

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  1. Cleaning After a Flood or Emergency. The American Cleaning Institute