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How To Decontaminate a House

During COVID-19, people all over the world had a sudden need for decontamination of their homes and businesses. And this was a serious wake-up call.

Just keeping the place clean is already serious work, but truly decontaminating requires a specific plan and a systematic approach based on the specific threats you’re trying to eradicate. It’s like the kind of deep cleaning you’d do after having a major illness. Once again, COVID-19 made us even more diligent about this. But when it comes to chemical or nuclear contamination, most people have no idea what’s necessary.

Today we’ll go over the basics of decontamination and keeping your living space safe in the aftermath of everything from seasonal threats like flooding to pandemics and once-in-a-lifetime catastrophes.

Decontaminating any structure and its surroundings is so time-consuming that it will often make more sense to discard rather than decontaminate an item. Unfortunately, in some situations, there is no way to save possessions, and it may not even be worth saving an entire home under extreme circumstances.

Let’s get started …

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  • 01

    Nuclear Decontamination

  • 02

    Biological Decontamination

  • 03

    Chemical Decontamination

  • 04

    Decontaminating After Disasters

  • 05

    Clean Up Procedure

  • 06

    Best Practices for Any Decontamination Efforts

  • 07

    Basic CBRN Contamination Prevention

  • 08

    Biological Contamination Prevention

  • 09

    Other Common Problems Requiring Decontamination

  • 10

    A Whole New Home

  • 11

    FAQs

Nuclear Decontamination

In many cases, anything in a nuclear fallout zone is typically considered a total loss. People in Fukushima and Chornobyl were forced to leave behind most of what they owned.

Radiation levels within your home will need to be measured before you know if anything you own is salvageable. If levels are too high, you cannot clean or salvage any of your items—as they will remain dangerous for decades or centuries to come. The discarded clothing from the firefighters at Chornobyl remains highly irradiated to this day, for example.

High radiation levels within your home depend on how much fallout occurs in your area. Proximity to the location of the release, wind patterns and overall severity are all factors.

With the more recent Fukushima nuclear disaster, residents tried to take some belongings only to have them taken away when they showed up at emergency centers. Nuclear contamination can be practically impossible to get rid of.

You need to be honest with yourself about the value of some possessions. Clothing is an excellent example of something you are probably better off buying than trying to decontaminate it.

The unfortunate fact is that when individuals try to decontaminate homes and surrounding areas of radioactive isotopes, they stir up even more radiation from dust and dirt and thus make the situation worse for themselves and their families.

Nuclear cleanup is something that is best left to professionals if it is even possible. That being said, if you are interested in what methods are used to reduce or remove radioactive contamination from surfaces at nuclear power plants, here is a link to an informative document from FEMA.

Biological Decontamination

Many viruses die pretty quickly when exposed to sunlight or artificial UV rays.

Remember that viruses usually do not like hot temperatures. This is one reason flu season is during the year's cooler months. Heating your house to a higher temperature can help kill off viruses.

Step #1: Air it out.

Airborne viruses do best in enclosed spaces. Airing out your home before you do any further decontamination is a good idea. Leave all windows open while you are performing other decontamination duties.

Step #2: Wash any potentially contaminated fabrics.

Wash any contaminated clothing, towels, and bedding in hot water and soap. Dry on a high setting or hang clothes and expose them to sunlight until dry.

Step #3: Disinfect all the surfaces that you can.

Bleach is an excellent inexpensive disinfectant, but it cannot be used on all surfaces. Hard surfaces in bathrooms and kitchens are great places to use bleach. Other disinfectants, such as Lysol, can take care of many other surfaces.

Do not forget to disinfect the following high-use surfaces:

  • light switches

  • handrails

  • toilets

  • sinks

  • bathtubs

  • showers

  • food preparation areas

  • trash cans

  • electronics

Step #4: Go through children's toys carefully and decide what can be cleaned.

Toys can be difficult to clean. Worn toys with a lot of surface area will be best thrown away and replaced. Washing stuffed animals by hand in hot soapy water and drying well is cumbersome, but it can help you save beloved toys. Plastic toys can be wiped down with a disinfectant and a damp rag to remove any residue.

Natural disinfectant cleaners like those from Seventh Generation are an excellent choice for kids' toys because they are tested rigorously for safety. Always check labels to decide what products to use around children.

Do I need a Haz Mat Suit?

Haz-Suits are a necessity for serious decontamination projects. Professional cleaners use them when they suspect they deal with anything beyond normal dust, debris, and everyday pathogens. A Haz-Suit is one way to be sure that you have suitable protection over a large portion of your body.

What About A UV Light?

There are UV lights that are designed to kill germs. These became quite popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. The principle is simple. Place objects under a UV light for a specific time, and they will be disinfected. The problem is that lights can only disinfect a small area at a time unless you invest in multiple lights or a larger, more expensive setup. This technology shows some promise, but at the moment it’s mostly just a gimmick.

Chemical Decontamination

Most Americans typically do not concern themselves with chemical warfare agent or toxic industrial chemical residue inside their very homes. However, as recent events have shown us, this is in fact a very real possibility.

Consider that for much of the years between 2020 and 2022, several major cities experienced mass rioting for weeks on end, in which riot control agents such as CS and OC devices were deployed. And it was not just the rioters or protestors who were affected. The local apartment complexes, condominiums, and houses that happened to be in the same vicinity were pumped by these gases, harming the residents who lived inside.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Seattle Times)

The ventilation shafts of these homes became an easy pathway for CBRN agents to permeate inside. On the whole, chemicals have a nasty habit of embedding themselves in carpeting, clothing, curtains, and other surfaces, making them difficult to remove.

In terms of decontamination, it is important to consider the severity of the contamination and on what particular surfaces. If there is a severe amount of chemical exposure on carpets, the expense of cleaning them is not worth it, especially when you calculate the risk of leaving contaminated material in a home. In general, getting rid of carpeting is one of the easiest things someone can do to make their home healthier unless they spend a lot of money on regular cleanings.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Blue Line Syndicate Group)

When it comes to residues of chemical warfare agents left on skin, equipment, or hard surfaces, it is vitally important to have quick and easy to deploy decontamination tools, like the MIRA Safety MDG-1 Personal CBRN Decontamination Glove. This uses nontoxic, noncorrosive, nonflammable, ultra-fine powder/clay compound to adsorp toxins such as residues of VX, Soman, Mustard, and CS gases. When used with a butly glove, this allows the user to safely decon surfaces.

Decontaminating After Disasters

Flooding can occur for a number of different reasons.

Hurricanes, snow melts, and dam failures can all lead to homes and businesses being heavily damaged or even destroyed. Having grown up in an area that floods frequently, I’ve learned it takes quite a bit of work to make a home livable again. Here are the steps you’ll need to take during and after flooding …

Mold and dust are significant health hazards.

After a flood, everything will need drying out. As this happens, mold becomes a significant problem. Not only that, a lot of silt dries into a fine dust that coats many flooded surfaces. Since silt can be very fine, it is a health hazard if you breathe it into your lungs.

After flooding, drying things out as quickly as possible can help prevent some mold from occurring, but it is unlikely to prevent it all in the event of a major disaster.

Carpeting is usually a total loss.

If the carpeting has been soaked, do yourself a favor and do not try to save it. It takes a very long time for carpeting to dry, and it is likely to do so quickly enough to avoid causing a smelly, moldy, and hazardous mess.

Dead animals, or even ones that are still alive, are a hazard in a home that has been flooded.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur)

During a flood, there is a lot of wildlife displaced. If they live in water, their habitat is suddenly much more expansive. Plenty of people in warmer areas during hurricane season have come back to see the damage done to their flooded homes and found a whole menagerie of wildlife in their living rooms. In extreme cases, this can include hazardous animals like alligators.

Snakes are another risk. Even animals that seem relatively harmless, such as cats and dogs, can act differently if they are hurt or scared and take shelter in a structure. Use good judgment when dealing with any animals after a disaster. Call animal control to report problems and get help if needed.

Only attempt cleanup once the water has completely receded.

Wading through flood waters is a bad idea. Besides all the debris and wildlife, you must be concerned about water contamination. Bacteria and pathogens can thrive in floodwaters, especially if you live near an agricultural area. Even minor cuts or scrapes you do not notice can become infected if they come into contact with water. If you must go into flood water, use 100% waterproof waders and other gear to minimize skin contact.

Clean Up Procedure

PPE Gear

For flood cleanup, an essential respirator is likely all you need. The MIRA Safety TAPR, outfitted with P-3 ParticleMax Filters, is an excellent choice to eliminate dangers from inhaling mold and fine silt. These filters offer the highest level of protection from inhaled particulate threats, and they’re cost-effective.

Durable waterproof gloves such as MIRA Safety Haz Gloves and disposable nitrile or latex gloves are another necessity. Disposables are suitable for some jobs, but they are more likely to tear or be punctured while cleaning, so a good pair of thicker gloves can be excellent for demanding tasks.

Eyewear will help protect your eyes from irritation from dust and any strong cleaning chemicals.

All this gear will help you with the crucial steps of decontaminating a home that’s been flooded:

  • Removing any water that you can that has not drained away on its own.

  • Bagging up any items that are too damaged to save or simply not worth it to you to clean.

  • Tearing out any carpeting that is too damaged.

  • Wiping down all surfaces with a disinfectant to eliminate mold and mildew.

  • Vacuuming up any debris that is dried and can be eliminated that way.

Keep windows open if possible and use fans to help eliminate moisture and any air contamination. Portable heaters can help dry out locations.

Solutions To Kill Mold

Bleach

Mix 2 teaspoons of bleach and 2 cups of water to make a 16 ounce cleaning solution.

(Image source: Image courtesy of CDC)

Hydrogen Peroxide

A 3-10% hydrogen peroxide solution will kill mold and lighten stains, although it does not lighten as quickly as bleach. The advantage of hydrogen peroxide is that it does not cause a lot of odor and fumes like bleach products. If you are sensitive to bleach fumes, hydrogen peroxide is an affordable alternative for cleaning.

Distilled White Vinegar

One of the cheapest and most effective cleaners is distilled white vinegar. You can spray it full strength on mold and let it sit for an hour before cleaning. Do not use it on unsealed stone or risk damaging it.

Rubbing Alcohol

A 50-50 solution of rubbing alcohol and water cleans and kills mold. It is gentle, so it is a good choice for more sensitive surfaces, including fabric and leather.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Medical News Today)

Baking Soda and Borax

These everyday household products are great either alone or when combined to treat and remove mold. Baking soda is better at cleaning up mold, while borax effectively removes the stains that the mold often leaves behind.

When using any of the cleaning solutions above, only rinse a little of the product away if you rinse all. Leaving some cleaner behind is an excellent way to ensure no future mold growth occurs.

Know when a place is not livable.

Homes with a great deal of sheet rock and carpeting will develop major mold problems if flooded. In most cases, some extensive repairs are needed. If damage is so significant that cleaning is not going to fix it, do not risk living in a home that will be a breeding ground for bacteria and mold.

Best Practices for Any Decontamination Efforts

Identify the Agent

You may need help understanding what you are dealing with during a CBRN event. In the aftermath, it is best to pinpoint the exact threat so you can plan how to decontaminate what you can and get on with your life. You can get home tests for radon, CBRN agents, mold, and more online.

Bag and Dispose of Rags, Paper Towels, etc.

The last thing you want is to recontaminate a space via used rags, paper towels, etc. Make sure you bag and safely dispose of anything you use to scrub and clean. All disposable PPE should be bagged and properly disposed of as well. If it is a really major situation and proper disposal is not available, you should at least put a barrier between contaminated cleaning materials and the rest of the world by bagging them.

Burning is an option when disposing of materials used to clean up biologicals. Yes, it is not great for the environment to burn plastics, rubber, etc., but if you have to rid yourself of a toxic bioweapon or disease, then an exception should be made. Burning anything contaminated with nuclear or chemical residue is not recommended and could even worsen the situation.

Keep children, pets, and those with health issues out of areas while contaminated and during the clean-up process.

The most vulnerable members of your family and community should stay back and not participate in clean-up efforts. It takes far less substance to affect a child, animal, or person with health issues. Try to find alternative shelter for them if it is available.

Do not take on too large a job.

If a home or business contains contamination that has the potential to be very harmful, it may be for the best to leave it to the professionals.

A house where meth has been made or consumed heavily is a perfect example of a time when a professional cleaner is needed. While the service will cost a bit of money, it is far better than the damage that can happen when someone is exposed to substances over a long period.

Heavy-duty decontamination of a home and all its contents is a serious job. If you have doubts that you have the time, gear, and motivation to do it right, consider a professional if available.

Your insurance may cover the cost if the damage is related to an industrial accident or natural event.

Insurance may even cover your housing cost when you have to be out of your home. With an industrial accident, the company may be liable and be required to get things cleaned and repaired for you. Practice good preparedness habits and always be ready to stay somewhere else for a few days.

If decontamination is going to take a great deal of time and effort, it may be best to temporarily relocate your family, even if you have to pay for it yourself. It can take some time for insurance to come through and authorize a stay at a hotel. You may have to pay out of pocket to check-in. This is why it is a good idea to have some emergency funds or a working credit card. Staying with friends or family is another option, especially if you decontaminate yourself.

Basic CBRN Contamination Prevention

If you have any warning about a potential CBRN event, you can take some precautions to decrease the chances of damage or contamination of your home or property. Will you be able to prevent all of it? Probably not, but anything you can do to reduce the impact of a CBRN will be helpful.

  • Close all windows and vents into the home.

  • Place towels or blankets under any doors.

  • Make sure car windows are closed and store vehicles in an enclosed area if possible.

For example, in a chlorine gas cloud, you may survive it simply by sealing off your house and allowing it to pass. This is especially true if a prevailing wind is blowing the cloud by quickly.

Biological Contamination Prevention

Practically everyone learned at least something about preventing the spread of biologicals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That being said, plenty of people did just enough to follow the rules but not enough to protect themselves. Here are some basic guidelines for preventing homes from becoming contaminated during high viral loads.

    • Keep hand sanitizer in your everyday carry bag. Use sanitizer before entering your home.

    • Wash hands often

    • Avoid touching your face and nose

    • Spend less time in public places that are enclosed, like grocery stores and malls.

    • Get takeout or choose outside dining if you need to get restaurant meals. Avoid buffets and other situations where food is shared.

    • Work from home when possible.

    • Wear a mask like the MIRA Safety Tactical Air-Purifying Respirator Mask (TAPR) with a P3 filter or a disposable N-95 or P-100. Make sure it is fitted correctly.

  • Wipe down heavy-use surfaces in your home with a disinfectant at least every other day. If threat levels are high, daily wipe-downs are recommended.

  • Encourage good sanitation habits for your kids. Those with children in school or daycare know how fast an illness can spread to other children and their families.

Other Common Problems Requiring Decontamination

Asbestos contamination is a problem with older homes and buildings. They used asbestos in various building materials, including roofing and rigid siding. While harmless when intact, if asbestos-containing materials become damaged, they can release microscopically thin fibers that can lead to serious health problems, including a condition called mesothelioma.

If your home contains asbestos, renovations or repairs can suddenly be a big problem because you have to hire someone to remove the asbestos and decontaminate your home. This is not safe to take on yourself. You will need to find somewhere else to stay while the decontamination occurs.

Lead Paint

Buildings constructed before 1980 could have lead paint. Lead-based paints have often been painted with modern paints that do not contain lead. However, the paint can still present a danger if it starts to flake and fall to the ground or onto other home surfaces. Pets and children are susceptible to picking up lead contamination. Lead paint decontamination is something a homeowner can accomplish with the proper personal protective equipment and cleaning gear.

Stripping lead paint is a common practice. Sanding creates a lot of dust and debris. In some cases, replace windows or trim boards treated with lead paint, especially if there is other damage and issues.

Here are some best practices for lead paint removal and decontamination.

  • Keep other family members that are not helping away and contain pets until cleanup is completed.

  • Wear a respirator with P-3 cartridges.

  • Always use protective goggles to prevent paint chips and dust from irritating your eyes.

  • Use some tough gloves that are puncture-resistant.

Consider using a product made to clean lead-based paint rather than just wiping it up with regular cleaning products.

Fiberlock Lead Dust Cleaner is recommended for situations where lead paint chips or dust are present.

Note: If you hire someone to do a home renovation or repair and you suspect lead paint, advise them that it might be a problem. Although experienced contractors know to look for these things, it always helps to alert them since lead contamination is becoming rarer as time goes on.

Lead Encapsulation Paint

If you have lead paint present, you can use special paint to paint over it and seal away the problem. This is expensive paint but a lot cheaper than removal in many cases. Two coats of paint will encapsulate lead, so it is not harmful to your family.

Radon Contamination

Radon is a radioactive noble gas that is naturally occurring. If your home tests positive for radon, there are many methods for decontamination.

  • Increase ventilation in the basement and accept that your home will either be cooler or you will have higher heating costs.

  • Remove any radon-containing building material.

  • Seal cracks and issues in your basement.

  • Sub slab depressurization done by a professional service. This method uses suction pipes run through the floor or concrete slab. A specialized vent fan draws out the radon and releases it outside. This is the most common long term solution.

A Whole New Home

As you can see, decontaminating a home is much harder than simply cleaning one.

So before you get started on your own, it’s important to stop and acknowledge how challenging, costly, and time-consuming it could be. You’ll need enough funding, protective gear, and time to get the job done. And even then, you’ll need extensive testing to know whether the job’s been done right.

In many situations, simpy replacing your belongings will be more practical. It’s not something people want to hear after the fact, but it’s also a very good reason to consider upgrading your insurance before anything happens.

Renter’s insurance, homeowner’s insurance—even car insurance and flood insurance—can offer practical peace of mind for less than you might think. Know your policy and know what you to expect, and you’ll be in good hands.

Until then, stay safe!

FAQs

What is the difference between when you clean and decontaminate a house?
How do I test for contamination?