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Ask Dr. Laundry

Ask Dr. Laundry

Hurricane Irene: Water Damaged Clothes & Disaster Preparedness

By Dr. Laundry September 2, 2011

Q:  I need some help with clothes flooded in Hurricane Irene, in particular items that cannot go in hot water (delicate fabrics).  How do I handle them?  There is not a lot of mud, but water came reached them and wicked into the fabric.

A:  Watching the images on TV of the storm damage from Irene is really sobering, and I have been thinking about the people who have the daunting task of cleaning up.  Hopefully the flood waters you encountered were not contaminated, and your household water supply is safe for human consumption and skin contact.  Note that if your incoming water is not yet safe for drinking, you should not use it for any laundry unless you are hand-washing and using bleach.  Bleach needs to be added to both the wash and rinse water.  Thankfully it sounds like you have passed this hurdle.  Unfortunately, there is currently not a product for disinfecting any and all colored laundry items or fabrics made from wool, silk, mohair, spandex and leather.   Clorox2® has a different bleach active, hydrogen peroxide, which is a much weaker bleach and therefore safe for colors.  However, it doesn’t meet EPA disinfecting requirements.

To guarantee disinfection, you will need to wash as many items as possible with detergent + ¾ cup Clorox® Regular-Bleach in the hottest water recommended on the care label, so figuring out which of your items can be safely bleached is an important first step.  There actually are many colored fabrics than can be safely bleached, and it depends on which type of dye was used to color the fabric.  Also, “delicate” fabrics can often be bleached as long as they are not made from the fibers listed above.  Cotton and nylon underwear, for example, are delicate and perfectly bleachable from a fiber standpoint.  For colored items that you are unsure about, you can easily test bleachability as follows:


  • Mix a test solution by diluting 2 tsp Clorox® Regular-Bleach in ¼ cup water

  • Apply a drop to a hidden part of the item such as an inside hem, cuff, or seam and then blot dry

  • No color change means the item can be safely bleached.  A color change shows what to expect following approximately five cycles with bleach.


I have had success safely bleaching light colored linens and towels, and 100% polyester fleece, to name a few.  Also, you only need to bleach your flood damaged items once.  Some of them could probably handle one wash cycle with bleach, but would fade after 5 cycles (blue jeans often can handle occasional bleach washing).  Because of the severity of the situation (and the possibility that your clothing could have been exposed to contaminated water), it would be worth it to try to bleach as many items as you can.  However, there are items that you simply can’t bleach, and for those you can try the following techniques to reduce the germ count as much as possible:

  • Wash in hot water even if it is not what’s recommended on the care label.  This is especially important if your hot water heater is set at a lower temperature.

  • Wash any items of particular concern separately from other items to avoid germ transfer, and consider washing them twice

  • Use the hottest dryer setting recommended on the care label.

  • Air dry items made from wool outdoors in the sun.


Follow up with a washer clean-out cycle (running one cycle with the washer empty) with ¾ cup Clorox® Regular-Bleach to be sure the clothes washer is disinfected and germs don’t transfer to other loads.  Hopefully you can restore as many of your flood damaged non-bleachable items as possible. 

I also have some additional disaster preparedness bleach tips that might be helpful:


  • If water supplies are compromised and you are unable to boil water for one minute (3 minutes at high elevation) you can create potable water by using regular liquid bleach. Add 1/8 teaspoon (8 drops) of bleach to one gallon of water. Let sit for 30 minutes. Properly treated water should have a slight chlorine odor. If not, repeat dosage and let sit another 15 minutes. Use ¼ teaspoon of bleach (16 drops) for cloudy water.

  • Disinfect surfaces, like counter tops, by first washing away all visible dirt. Apply a disinfecting solution of ¾ bleach per gallon of water. Let the solution stand for 5 minutes. Rinse thoroughly and let air dry.

  • Make a family preparedness plan for communication in the event of an emergency. Put together an emergency preparedness kit that includes food, water (at least 1 gallon per person per day) a first aid kit, flashlight, radio, personal documents and sanitation supplies such like regular liquid bleach.

  • In the wake of disaster, there is much to do as you assess the health and safety of your household as well as next steps to rebuild your life.  The first thing you’ll want to do is check communication channels to ensure that local officials have declared it safe to return home. When home, cleaning up after a natural disaster can be a daunting task so it’s important keep your health top of mind using these steps:

    • Before entering the home, look outside for loose power lines, damaged gas lines, foundation cracks or other damage

    • During cleanup, wear protective clothing, including rubber gloves and rubber boots

    • Look for flooding or large pools of standing water surrounding your home. These waters can be contaminated with high levels of bacteria that can make you sick, so disinfecting with a solution of bleach and water may help prevent the spread of infections and illness