News Flash

Health - Public Health News

Posted on: November 16, 2021

How to Stay Safe When You Can’t Stay Dry

Record rainfall has flooded much of Whatcom County, displacing many from their homes and causing a lot of damage. Flood water can also contaminate wells and septic systems and make you sick if you come into contact with it. Make sure you take care around flood water both during the flood and when cleaning up after. 

Avoid Unnecessary Contact with Floodwater

Paddle boarders and kayakers, this one’s for you! We know it might *seem* fun to test out new waters, but floodwater contains unknown and unseen hazards of all sorts - debris, bacteria, needles, trash, and who knows what else. It’s best to avoid any unnecessary contact with floodwater. Save the boating for safer and cleaner waters.

Septic Systems

Limit use of your septic system - or better yet, don’t use it at all. If there is standing water on the ground around your septic system, the ground will not absorb wastewater from sinks or toilets. Too much water in the septic drainfield causes the septic system to overload, slowing down or stopping the treatment of wastewater. When this occurs, you run the risk of your septic waste backing up into your home, particularly if your drainfield is partially clogged.

Wait until the ground has dried before using your septic system again. When it’s safe to start using your septic again, follow these tips:

  • Make sure there is no damage to electrical connections before turning the system back on. Be sure to turn the pump on before using the system.
  • If silt and debris have gotten into your septic tank, have the system pumped as soon as possible. Wait until the water has receded and the area is no longer saturated before opening the tank.
  • If any sewage has backed up into the house, avoid contact with it. Disinfect thoroughly to prevent serious illness from the disease-causing organisms in the wastewater.
  • Check for blockages. It is possible the outlet tee (or baffle) may be partially plugged due to floating scum that floated up during the flooding.
  • Contact a septic system professional if you have any of the following problems:
    • Water over the drainfield that does not recede after the rain stops.
    • You smell a sewage odor.
    • Wastewater or sewage backs up into the house.
    • The drains run slowly, especially after doing laundry or taking a shower.
    • You notice soggy areas with surfacing sewage in your yard.

Still have questions about when it’s safe to use your septic system again?

  • Read our FAQs about operating and maintaining septic systems
  • Call us to talk with one of our septic experts: 360-778-6000.
  • Check out these FAQs from the EPA.

Drinking Water

If your drinking water comes from a well and your well is flooded, assume it is unsafe to drink. Do not drink water from your well until it has been serviced, disinfected, and you know the water is not contaminated. Until you can have it serviced, drink only bottled or purified water.

If your drinking water comes from a public water system, contact them if you’re unsure if it’s safe to drink. You can find contact information on your water bill.

If your well is affected by flooding, follow these steps:

  • Stay away from the well pump and turn off the electricity to avoid electric shock.
  • Seek a qualified well contractor or pump installer to assist with the following:
    • Clean, dry and re-establish electrical service to the pump.
    • Disinfect and flush the well to remove any contamination that entered during the flood.
    • Perform any other necessary maintenance so that your well pump can return to service. Too much sediment in water can cause pump damage or failure, so we recommend you use professional contractors to assess and fix your pump.
  • After the pump is turned back on, pump the well until the water runs clear to rid the well of flood water.
    • If your water is still murky, you should have it tested before drinking. In Whatcom County, there are two labs certified by the state to test drinking water, Edge Analytical and Exact Scientific Services.

Still have questions?

Cleaning Up After the Flood

While it’s important to limit unnecessary contact with flood water, it’s also likely you’ll have to get your hands dirty during and after the flood. Fortunately, there’s a few steps you can take to keep yourself safe from flood water:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water while cleaning up after a flood, or whenever you must contact flood water.
  • Wear boots and gloves while cleaning up. 
  • Wash all clothes and linens in hot water.
  • Wash all surfaces with hot water and soap. Disinfect surfaces by wiping with a bleach solution of 1 cup bleach to 1 gallon of water.
  • Throw away all food that has come into contact with water. Canned food is ok to save, but make sure you wash the can thoroughly before opening it. 
  • If you’ve lost power and wonder if the food in your refrigerator or freezer is safe to eat, follow this simple rule: When in doubt, throw it out. Check out 
    • Temperature is the key to food safety. Foods that thaw but remain at 41 F or below are safe to refreeze once power returns.
    • Once power resumes, check the temperatures of your food. For cold foods, use this table as a guide:

Hours without power

Temperature 45°F or below

Temperature 46-50°F

Temperature 51°F or above








Throw away

Over 4


Throw away

Throw away


Asbestos in Floodwaters from Swift Creek and Sumas River

Floodwaters from Swift Creek and the Sumas River carry naturally occurring asbestos from Sumas Mountain. If you live or work in the areas around Everson, Nooksack, and Sumas, you may be exposed to asbestos in floodwater, or in mud and sediment left behind. You can take steps to limit your exposure to asbestos from floodwaters and protect your health. Learn more in our fact sheet here:

Finally, stay updated on the latest flood-related information from Whatcom County government:

And stay safe and healthy, everyone! 

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