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Tips on Laundering Flood-Soiled Fabrics

As soon as the flood waters have receded, a new priority becomes how to clean up clothes and other fabrics that have been soaked by muddy flood water. Here are some steps you can take to launder and, hopefully, salvage as many garments as possible.

SCRAPE AND SHAKE dirt and residue from fabrics, then rinse or wash as soon as possible to help prevent the growth of mildew. While doing this, it's a good idea to wear rubber gloves and a dust mask to avoid exposure to heavily contaminated soils.

PREWASH fabrics in cool water using powdered laundry detergent. These detergents are effective on clay and ground-in dirt. Do not use hot water, as hot water may set stains.

  • Some washers have a prewash cycle that includes a short soak period; the machine may automatically advance to the regular wash. Refer to the machine instruction manual to see how to set your washer for the automatic prewash cycle or how to manually set the controls to agitate and then spin.
  • Use small loads with a full water level.
  • To help remove protein stains, such as sewage, grass or blood, add an enzyme presoak product to the prewash.
  • Measure detergent into the washer, then add water and allow detergent to thoroughly dissolve before adding clothes.
  • Allow clothes to rinse and spin dry. At this point, do not dry in the dryer.

PRETREAT heavy soils with a prewash soil and stain remover or an enzyme presoak product; follow label directions.

  • A prewash soil and stain remover works well on oil-based stains like animal fats, body soils, cooking oils, cosmetics and motor oils
  • An enzyme presoak works well on protein stains like blood, body fluids and grass.

WASH garments using small loads and a full water level. Do not overload washer.

  • Use the hottest water safe for fabrics being washed.
  • Use a powdered laundry detergent (a powdered detergent is effective in removing clay and ground in dirt), adding slightly more detergent than recommended on the package.
  • Since clothing may have been contaminated with sewage, it is important to add a disinfectant* to the wash. Use liquid household bleach (sodium hypochlorite), following label directions. (Note: If there is a large amount of iron in soil deposits or in the water, liquid household bleach can cause rust stains to appear on fabrics. Also, check garment labels before laundering; some fabrics cannot be washed using liquid household bleach.)
  • If liquid household bleach is not recommended, a color-safe (oxygen) bleach will also help remove stains and odors and will not set rust stains. Some detergents have color-safe bleach or bleach alternative built into the product. However, remember that these products do not disinfect.
  • Other products sanitize and control odors. Follow label directions for proper use in the laundry.

IF there are rust or rust-colored stains on fabrics, use a commercially prepared rust remover to help remove them. Look for these products in the laundry or fabric dye section of the supermarket. They are generally intended to be used on white or colorfast fabrics. Because they can cause color removal, follow package directions and test first on a small, inconspicuous area of the garment before using. IF fabrics have been wet for any length of time, mildew might appear. Launder stained items using liquid household bleach if safe for fabric. Or, soak in oxygen bleach and hot water, then launder. Mildew is difficult to remove, and badly mildewed fabrics may be damaged beyond repair.

CONTINUE TO WASH as many times as needed. The condition of the rinse water is a good indication of whether or not the clothes are clean. If the water is dirty or cloudy, the clothes should be washed again. If rinse water is reasonably clear, clothes should be clean.

DO NOT DRY FABRICS IN A DRYER UNTIL YOU ARE SATISFIED WITH THE RESULTS. The heat from the dryer can set stains, making them impossible to remove.

* For disinfecting, use only products that display an EPA Registration Number on the label. This assures that the product has met EPA requirements for disinfectants. Follow label directions to get disinfection.