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Sewage backup cause, prevention, & response:
This article series explains how to deal with and test for sewage backup contamination, sewage contamination testing,
inspection, and cleanup- remediation in residential and commercial buildings. If you have had sewage back up and spill out of toilets into the building, cleanup is needed and you may face bacterial hazards.
If you have had a sewage backup or burst house drain pipe in your building this document offers some advice on how to test
for sewage contamination, bacterial and viral hazards, and links to sewage spill cleanup and bacterial hazard information regarding sewage and septic spill contamination.
We explain why and how testing for sewage contamination is performed and we discuss the urgency of proper cleanup following a sewage backup or spill in a building. The photo above shows what dirt and sewage sludge may look like in a basement after a sewer line backup.
We also provide a MASTER INDEX to this topic, or you can try the page top or bottom SEARCH BOX as a quick way to find information you need.
Testing For Bacterial Contamination and Cleaning Up Sewage Backups in Buildings
In this article we discuss how to test for bacterial or other pathogens in a building - tests that may be useful after a sewage spill cleanup in order to assure that the building is acceptably clean.
[Click to enlarge any image]
Checking buildings for indoor air quality or other contaminants which may
affect occupant health should not omit inspecting and taking site history for
evidence of sewage or septic system backups into the structure or basement or
crawl space areas below the structure.
Gray water and black water (sewage) can
cause a wide range of fungal, bacteriological, viral, and parasitic hazards in
The photo at left shows evidence of raw sewage overflow in the crawl space under a home. Although a new waste line was installed (the white pipe at the top of the photograph) no cleanup has been performed.
Both a one-time event and recurrent sewage leaks into a building would be aconcern, particularly if prompt and competent cleaning were not performed.
If recurrent sewage contamination has occurred more extensive building cleaning and treatment are likely to be required.
One reason that experts recommend very
prompt treatment following a sewage backup in a building is the wish to avoid transmission of bacterial contamination
to other building areas.
Examples of sewage bacteria and virus transmission might be by movement of people from contaminated areas to other building areas (tracking contaminated
soil), and air movement of aerosolized particles or contaminated dust through the building by natural convection, heating and air conditioning equipment, or
other sources of air and dust movement.
Testing for Sewage or Septic Contamination
Watch out: sewage spills contain contaminants that can cause serious illness or disease.
The photograph above shows a rather innocent-looking wet concrete basement floor following a sewer line backup into this building. In fact a very high level of pathogens was present
on the concrete, on the lower portions of furnishings, and on and inside the paneled wall cavity.
Demolition, cleaning, and disinfection were needed. These surfaces were then re-tested after cleaning and disinfection were complete.
Additional testing was conducted to confirm that the workers did not contaminate other building areas during this cleanup.
Disease causing agents in raw sewage include bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses and can cause serious illnesses including bacterial infections, Tetanus, Hepatitis A, Leptospirosis, infections by Cryptosporidium & Giardia and gastrointestinal diseases.
For a detailed list of the pathogens found in common household wastewater such as a septic tank and drainfield, see also our discussion of pathogens in sewage
see what makes up the contents of residential sewage explained at SEWAGE PATHOGENS in SEPTIC SLUDGE.
While sewage may contain many pathogens harmful to building occupants, testing for this problem usually focuses on indicator organisms including total
coliform, fecal coliform, Escherichia coli (E. coli), and Enterococcus as these species are expected in human sewage waste. They are potentially harmful
themselves as well as serving as an indicator of sewage contamination.
How are Sewage Contamination Tests Conducted?
Sterile Swab Tests for Sewage Contamination
Typical sampling methods to test for sewage contamination in buildings include use of sterile swabs on sample surfaces both in the suspected area and as a control in other building areas where low or no contamination is expected.
Step by step details of how sterile swabs are used to collect environmental samples of suspected mold, sewage, pesticide residue, or other substances are found at SWAB TEST KIT PROCEDURE
Swab tests for environmental sampling are also discussed at
Bulk samples of debris or building materials may also be collected, such as drywall suspected of having been wet with a sewage backup. Samples are sent to a qualified laboratory for culture and examination for these bacteria.
Since there are a variety of tests for bacteria and for possible sewage contamination, specification of the definitive lab test for sewage contamination is important where
health concerns are at stake. Be sure to review the test choices with your laboratory before ordering a specific test as test accuracy and cost vary widely.
UV Light for Spotting Sewage Contamination& Urine
We also use UV light to screen buildings for sewage contaminants, urine, or other body fluids, including blood. See
At SEWAGE & SEPTIC CONTAMINANTS we list the pathogens and contaminants commonly found in sewage and in sewage backup waters. In this article series we explain the causes of sewer or septic backups into buildings, the health hazards, testing, and cleanup of sewage backups, and the cure or prevention of future sewage or septic backup problems.
Continue reading at SALVAGE BUILDING CONTENTS if you need to remove and clean or salvage building contents such as clothing & furniture,or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.
 "Remediation of Sewage Contaminated Crawlspaces", Byjim Holland, CR, "Cleaning and Restoration," July 1999, pp 22-24, original source: restcon.com/links/articles/Remediating%20Contaminated%20Crawlspaces.pdf
Benson, A., ed. (1990) Control of Communicable Diseases in Humans, American Public Health Association, Washington, DC.
Berry, M.A. (1993) Protecting the Built Environment: Cleaning for Health, Tricomm 21st press, Chapel Hill, NC, p. 185.
Rogers, S.A. (1991) Indoor fungi as part of the cause of recalcitrant symptoms of the tight building syndrome. Env. International. 17:271-275.
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Cole, E.C. (1987) The application of disinfection and sterilization to infectious waste management. In: Tulis, J.J. and W. R. Thomann (eds.), Proceedings of strategies for improved chemical and biological waste management for hospitals and clinical laboratories. Duke University, University of North Carolina, North Carolina Pollution Pays Program.
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Rogers, S.A. (1991) Indoor fungi as part of the cause of recalcitrant symptoms of the tight building syndrome. Env. International. 17:271-275.
Rutala, W.A.; E.C. Cole; and N.S. Wannamaker. (1991) Inactivation of Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Mycobacterium bovis by 14 Hospital Disinfectants. Amer J. Med. 91:2675-2715.
Rutala, W.A. (1987) Disinfection, sterilization and waste disposal. In: Wenzel, R.P., Prevention and control of nosocomial infections. Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore.
 Amahmid, O., Asmama, S., & Bouhoum, K. (1999). The effect of waste water reuse in irrigation on the contamination level of food crops by Giardia cysts and Ascaris eggs. International Journal of Food Microbiology, 49(1-2), 19-26.
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 Thanks to reader Charles Labs at 247inktoner.com Tel: 800-866-8022 (a provider of ink toner, ink cartridges and related supplies) for updating our CDC link on e-Coli 4/19/2013.
Books & Articles on Building & Environmental Inspection, Testing, Diagnosis, & Repair
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