Wet crawl space unsafe to enter (C) Daniel Friedman Sewage Spill Cleanup in Crawl Areas

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Sewage backup or spill cleanup in crawl spaces:

This article describes sewage backup or spill procedures for building crawl spaces or other hard-to-enter building areas.

We describe special safety procedures for crawl space entry, debris removal, sewage removal, and sewage-contaminated soil removal. We also describe steps to prevent future sewage contamination in the crawl area.

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Hazards of & Best Response to a Sewage Spill in a Crawl Space

Sewage backup under a homeReader question: I am writing in the hope of getting some information on a sewage spill that happened at the place we are renting. We are in a studio unit that is below the original plumbing of the main building.

There is a pump-up system to get rid of the sewage. It overflowed a couple of weeks ago because somebody previous to us had flushed tampons down the system and they had jammed the pump.

The effluent overflowed out of the top of the containment barrel and ran about 15'down the slope in the crawl space.

At that time the landlord removed a good bit of the contaminated soil and then put kitty litter over it to absorb the moisture.

Yesterday the tank overflowed again. This time, the plumber found a towel that had been flushed down the toilet, also by previous tenants.

Our landlords had said they noticed the towel missing in mid August. It is now mid Nov. The plumber thought that it had just been floating in the collection barrel and was only a matter of time before it got sucked up by the pump.

This all happened in the crawl space below the unit we are renting. We are in Whistler BC and the house is built on the side of the mountain, so the crawl space is not the traditional type one visualizes when we think of a crawl space.

Where the collection barrel is located, the space is just deep enough for the height of the barrel. By the entrance door of the crawl space, the ceiling to floor is well over 12'. Most of the are is mountain bedrock which is very jagged and sloping. As such, it is quite difficult to clean the area. This last spill has re-soaked the kitty litter from the previous spill.

My question to you is, are there health hazards due to the spill. My wife and I have somewhat compromised immune systems, so we have concerns about the consequences. The landlord had also stated that there was a continual problem with wet, damp soil in the crawl space.

Would this lead to a mold problem. What would you suggest to clean up the spill, if anything. Would putting kitty litter or some other absorbing material be a good enough solution? Are there other steps that one could take to rectify the problem? Can the bacteria be transferred by walking in the affected area and then tracked into our living space? Or is it of no concern? I thank you for your time and I look forward to your response in the near future.- R.P. 10/14/2012

Advice for Disinfecting & Drying Out a Sewage Contaminated Crawl Space

Inaccessible and contaminated crawl area requires special protection and debris removal before a sewage spill can be addressed (C) Daniel Friedman Reply: We can't reliably assess the extent of health hazards in your home due to a crawl space sewage backup from just your note, as there are other very important considerations that an onsite expert would consider, such as the ease with which air or dust can move from a contaminated crawl area into the occupied building space. But here are some thoughts that may help:

  • At SEWAGE BACKUP, WHAT TO DO we give the first-response priorities & steps in a sewage spill or leak response.
  • At SEWAGE CLEANUP STANDARDS we describe in more detail the steps in removing sewage & disinfecting & cleaning a building interior after a sewage backup or spill.
  • Just below in this article - CRAWL SPACE SEWAGE CLEANUP - we describe in detail the steps in removing sewage & disinfecting a building crawl space.

Photograph of sewer line break in a crawl spaceAn appropriate response to sewage spills in a crawl space goes beyond dumping some kitty litter on the ground. Missing from your description of how the sewage spill was handled in the crawl space you describe are these additional steps or considerations:

  1. An inspection for mold or other contaminants in the same area, and further cleaning of surfaces as needed

  2. Inspector for and removal/replacement of contaminated materials (after surface cleaning) of any suspect or contaminated insulation or similar materials in the crawl area
  3. Disinfection of the contaminated area. Professional cleaning companies use a variety of sanitizers and disinfectants beyond simple diluted bleach. The choice depends in part on just what surfaces and materials need treatment.

    Sanitizing a crawl space is described at CRAWL SPACE DRYOUT - home
  4. Prevent cross-contamination: measures to assure that sewage contaminated soil was not tracked into the living area, or appropriate cleaning there if needed. This may mean a few surface tests for sewage contaminants in the living area, starting with the most-suspect areas of floors.
  5. Check for contaminated mechanical equipment: If building water supply, fixtures, appliances etc. were contaminated they will need to be cleaned and disinfected or if necessary replaced. Any possible effect on the building HVAC systems - for example a warm air heat or air conditioning duct system exposed to contamination.
  6. Check sewage or water ejecting systems & equipment: Examination of the sewage ejector pump to remove any other pending blockages and to assure that the proper type of sewage grinder pump, check valves, piping, etc. are installed.

  7. Sewage or flood warning systems: in low building floors, crawl spaces, basements, installation of a warning system that indicates if the sewage pump is not working, so that residents can stop using toilets and fixtures long enough to fix the problem and avoid future sewage spills in the structure.

    Also see SEWAGE BACKUP PREVENTION and see Septic Pump Alarm Systems
  8. Building moisture control: in addition to removing contaminated soil (ok) in a flooded dirt floor basement or crawl area, typically we'd install a heavy plastic barrier to prevent soil moisture from continuing to enter the crawl area where it invites mold contamination.


    Also see CRAWL SPACE DRYOUT - home to be sure there are not other sources of water entry into the crawl area.


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