Georgia Archives

University System of Georgia

Mitigating Potential Hazards

Mitigating Potential Hazards to Materials and Individuals Following a Disaster

The salvage of personal belongings may at times involve materials that have been contaminated by sewage or other hazardous substances. Approaches to disinfecting may not be compatible with long-term preservation considerations. For example, bleach may disinfect, but will also do irreparable harm to the structural integrity of family papers or works of art. If hazards or contaminants are involved in damaged personal belongings, careful handling and employing protective measures, such as wearing gloves, coveralls, and respiratory protection are of utmost importance.

Keep in mind that some salvage approaches may be incompatible with the long-term preservation of the item. For example, some techniques, like freezing, may be desirable for the effective drying of paper-based items but are inappropriate for paintings on canvas, cased photographs, or magnetic media.


Mold is a very common by-product of water related disasters. Mold can permanently damage a variety of valuable personal belongings from papers to photographs, leather objects, and textiles. Be aware of the potential health problems whenever handling materials affected by mold. Even dormant (powdery) mold must be readily addressed lest it become active once conditions are favorable for growth. Molds commonly develop due to poor air circulation, moisture (high relative humidity), and high temperatures.

Respiratory protection is essential when dealing with mold. OSHA guidelines require a medical fitness test and fit-testing before using a respirator. Not everyone can wear a respirator. A physician, through a series of simple tests, can determine one’s medical fitness to wear a negative pressure respirator.

Fit-testing ensures that the respirator properly fits and is performing its assigned function. Individuals with beards cannot wear half-mask respirators at all. Acquire training to learn how to care for a respirator and when to dispose of the HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) cartridges needed in a mold environment. Training in the use and maintenance of other personal protective equipment, e.g., gloves, coats, is also desirable. Training may be obtained from your local Red Cross chapter or local OSHA representative.

Health Assistance and Information

Health concerns are always of paramount importance. Contact local county health department officials for advice on dealing with specific hazards. Georgia citizens may also contact the State Environmental Health Office online, or by telephoning 404-657-6534 if you suspect health hazards associated with disaster recovery activities. If hazards exist, health and safety precautions will need to be incorporated into a conservation salvage protocol.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information about potential health hazards related to all types of disasters through its Emergency Preparedness Response Branch (EPRB), part of CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health. You may reach the hotline at (770) 488-7100. The hotline operates 24 hours a day during emergencies. The EPRB has two main functions: 1) Providing assistance to local, state, and federal agencies in planning their public health-related responses to emergency situations, and 2) responding to requests for public health emergency response and recovery assistance after natural disasters.

Disaster Preparedness and Prevention

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website includes recent news about current disaster recovery efforts. Response and recovery information is available at Response & Recovery.

The Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) offers news briefs and summaries of state actions and services. It also links to sites that discuss characteristics of specific natural events and what may be done to prepare for disaster survival.

For a good source of general information about natural disasters, see Hurricane and Natural Disaster Brochures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Hurricane Center/Tropical Prediction Center. Use the table of contents for this exhaustive site that contains historical information as well as definitions and safety guidelines for hurricanes, tornados, floods and other natural disaster.

The Tornado Project offers a host of historical, statistical and general information about tornados.