Friday, June 23, 2023

Emergency preparations: Hygiene and sanitation


We've talked about a couple of aspects of emergency preparedness in blog posts this month:

A few more thoughts on emergency preparedness

In offline discussions about them, the topic of dealing with injuries sustained while using axes, hatchets, knives, machetes, etc. came up.  That led to a more free-ranging conversation about general hygiene and sanitation in a prolonged disaster situation, where clean water would be in short supply and sanitation systems such as sewers, garbage disposal, etc. would be non-functional.  Here are a few thoughts on the subject, based on my own experience in the Third World plus the fruits of those discussions.

First of all, there's an old saying that "Cleanliness is next to Godliness".  I'm afraid that's only true in an Irish dictionary!  In any emergency, personal hygiene is one of the first casualties, solely due to pressure of circumstances.  When things are coming apart at the seams all around one, and one may have to "bug out" to get away from otherwise unmanageable situations, opportunities to shower, bathe or even just wash the essential bits may be few and far between.  Therefore, it's a good idea to be in a reasonably good state of personal hygiene as a routine matter, so that if things go pear-shaped, one at least starts out in a somewhat sanitary condition.

It's important to cater for hygiene and sanitation in one's immediate emergency-use supplies.  A "bug-out kit" should contain toilet paper and soap enough to last one for a few days, as well as toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant, powder for the sweaty bits, moisturizing cream for those needing it, an effective sunblock, and so on.  How much you pack will depend on you, but one can buy travel-size tubes of toothpaste and containers of deodorant, which saves space.  A washcloth and towel are of equal importance.

For longer-term emergencies, your supplies should contain more of all the above, plus extra items as needed.  Look at what your family currently uses on a daily or weekly basis, and stock up on them.  As a rule of thumb, I guesstimate most people will use one bar of soap (approximately 4 ounces) every ten days to two weeks under normal circumstances.  If there are four people in your family, and you want to stock enough for a year, that's at least 2 bars of soap per person per month, multiplied by 12 months, for a total minimum requirement of 96 bars of soap.  That may sound like a lot, but it'll get used up soon enough - and that's not providing for any you share with neighbors and friends, who are sure to come calling when they run out.

(A hint:  when it comes to storing soap for the long term, vacuum seal the bars.  I normally seal two bars of soap in a single small package.  That stops moisture from evaporating from the bars, and keeps them at full size.  A dried-out, hardened husk of a bar of soap is no fun at all to use, and doesn't work very well.  How do I know this?  Trust me.  I know this!)

You can work out your own needs for toothpaste, shampoo, moisturizing cream, etc. based on your own consumption.  If at all possible, find out what every member of your family prefers in those lines, and stock up on it.  It'll be hard enough coping with severe shortages without forcing people to use toothpaste or shampoo that they dislike.  However, if things are really tight, they'll just have to use what's available, whether they like it or not.  I've washed my body and hair often enough using bars of plain old-fashioned laundry soap, because that's all that was to hand.  Again, where possible, vacuum seal such supplies for long-term storage.

The same applies to feminine hygiene items.  Ladies tend to have strong preferences as to what tampons or sanitary towels they like to use, so why not indulge them while those brands/types are readily available?  I think it's not a bad idea to have at least six month's supply of them in reserve;  a full year is entirely do-able.  Just store them in a cool, dry place, and use the older packages first while replacing them with newer.  Non-climate-controlled storage may lead them to become brittle and hard, which will not be appreciated by the ladies in your life;  and mice like nothing better for nesting materials.  You don't want to find that out the hard way, when there are no replacements handy!

There's also the question of how much water will be needed for personal hygiene.  If water has to be collected and carried by hand, every drop is precious.  You won't have any to waste.  Plan on what we used to call in the South African military a "staaldakbad" (steel helmet bath).  A pint or so of water in a container is used to wet a washcloth and soap, with which the essential bits are cleaned (armpits, groin, feet and hands).  If enough water is available, another pint may be used to rinse them.  A full bath is something that may only happen once every week or two, as and when enough water is available.  As for hot water, that'll depend on what (and how much) fuel is on hand.  Without electricity or a long-term supply of propane or natural gas, every drop will have to be heated over a fire - and firewood is also going to be in short supply.  Get used to the idea of cold washes.  Only in the depths of winter does hot water become more of a necessity than a luxury!

That's why powder (talc, baby powder, corn starch, medicated powders such as foot powder, etc.) is very likely to be important.  If you can't wash everything often enough, at least you can prevent friction and absorb bad odors.  In some cases, powders can help prevent and/or treat infections such as athlete's foot, jock itch, etc.  Just be careful you don't get them into places they're not supposed to be, where they may not be healthy.

The parts of your body essential to mobility and daily effort (i.e. your feet and hands) will need extra attention.  Keep nails trimmed, callouses filed, etc.  Have remedies on hand for blisters and sore patches (moleskin, bandages, etc.).  If you suffer from allergies, carry anti-allergy medication, eyedrops to keep your eyes free from dust and spores, and so on.  Tools such as tweezers to pluck splinters and thorns from flesh, files to remove callouses, needles to puncture blisters, etc. are all important.  They're essential parts of personal hygiene.

You'll need some way to wash clothing.  Powdered laundry detergent is probably the most useful way to go;  bars of laundry soap (see link above) are as good.  Unfortunately, washing clothes by hand is time-consuming and labor-intensive.  There's no way out of it, though.  I think it won't take long in an emergency situation for us to get back to the frontier ways of having fewer clothes each, but tougher ones, able to be washed often without falling apart under the strain.  We'll have to get used to them being more stained than usual, too;  we likely won't have easy access to bleach, washboards, etc.  A bucket laundry system (discussed here) or a small hand-powered washing machine will be very useful.

There's also the question of food and kitchen hygiene.  If water is in short supply, you won't want to waste it on washing dishes.  Paper bowls, plates and cups are your friends in emergency.  You can use them and dispose of them at once.  The old, stained plates can be scraped clean of scraps if necessary, then dried and used as firelighters.  Cooking gear and utensils will have to be washed, of course, so make sure you have dish soap on hand - not the kind used by automatic dishwashers, either, because that's formulated for machine use, and in the absence of electricity, they won't be of any use to you.  Scouring powder is also a very useful item, because it doesn't need much water to make it work.  A reserve supply of dish washing sponges is essential;  plan on needing at least one per month, and possibly two.  If your hands are sensitive to dish washing soap, plan on disposable gloves as well to protect them.  (Gloves are also very important for hygiene when preparing food, or doing dirty work, if you haven't got enough water to keep your hands clean.  Thicker gloves are better than thin ones for durability:  I suggest at least 5 mil or heavier.  I keep several boxes in stock for my wife and myself.  They're cheap enough to be a worthwhile precaution.)

Finally, if you're cooking over coals or firewood, the outside of your pots and pans will get very dirty.  Don't wash them with the same sponge you use for their inside;  that will merely spread soot all over everything.  Keep a dedicated scrubbing brush or sponge for that purpose, along with detergent strong enough to strip off the soot.  (Don't worry about the old folk remedy of smearing dish detergent on the outside of your pots and pans, to prevent soot sticking to them.  It works, but it'll use up your dish detergent very quickly indeed - and detergent will probably be in very short supply.)  Heavier cookware such as cast iron will last longer and be more usable over coals or fires than conventional pots and pans.

The quality of the water that's available is also important.  In the absence of a water purification facility, you'll have to filter or otherwise treat your own water to get rid of potential pollutants, infectious material, diseases, etc.  That's a whole topic on its own, about which we've previously spoken.  Plan on needing a water filter big enough to provide for your household, water purification tablets, etc.  For a "bug-in" situation, I'd budget a minimum of two gallons of water per person per day for all needs, and try to store enough for at least a couple of weeks.  When "bugging out", it'll depend on what's available.

This also affects disposal of human waste.  After a few days without power, urban sewage systems will cease to function, and septic tanks will probably no longer be pumped, leading to longer-term problems.  We'll have to find ways to dispose of our body wastes without polluting nearby water sources, and monitor those sources to be sure that nothing and nobody else threatens them in that way.  (Have you ever tasted water from a stream in which a herd of cows has just done their business, around a bend upstream of you?  You don't want to do that.  Trust me on this!)  Those with front and/or back yards can dig holes to bury human and pet waste, but those in apartments will be in a difficult situation.  We have to be able to dispose of it and clean up afterwards, and prevent any contamination of food, water, kitchen surfaces, etc.  That's a very important hygiene issue.  If we get it wrong, we can literally poison ourselves all too easily.

Finally, in a prolonged emergency, remember that hygiene and sanitation concerns are going to be swamped by other needs - gathering food, and fuel to cook it, and finding time to cook and eat it and clean up afterwards, plus do everything else that we'd normally delegate to labor-saving devices like vacuum cleaners, washing machines and so on.  It's very important for our health to make time and enforce it for personal hygiene and sanitation.  The dirtier and less hygienic we are, the more difficult it is to be around each other, and the greater the risk of related diseases or infected wounds.  It's vitally important to keep ourselves and our surroundings as sanitary as possible.



halfdar said...

Thank you for these notes, sir. This is an essential topic to address, and often overlooked in the details. I mean, everyone knows that they will need a supply of safe water in a grid-down scenario. What tends to escape notice are the full implications of this requirement, and the degree to which essential functions are dependent on said supply.
Whomever said 'the devil is in the details' wasn't just whistling 'Dixie', b'gosh!
The constant worrying over the details I have overlooked, on a number of fronts, is one of the things keeping me awake at night. Postings like this one help to alleviate this.
Yeoman's work, sir.

Mike in Canada

Anonymous said...

Soap in vacuum seal bags. I was taught as a very young child of WW2 that we always opened the bars of soap we purchased to dry them out. French soap lasting much longer than American soap due to this drying. Something I've always done and yes the bars seem to last much longer if I use them that way. Maybe let them dry first
then pack in the vacuum bags.

Anonymous said...

Cornstarch is food for microorganisms and should be avoided.

BC said...

I have built up some longer term supplies using "Subscribe and save" on Amazon. This can help with budget planning and slowly working your way ahead on supplies. I would order the same things I normally used, just at a rate a little faster than I normally used them, and after a couple years I have a 6 month supply on hand.

Make sure to utilize their 5 items per order discount smartly. If you buy 5 of 1 thing all together that counts as a single item, if you buy 1 item 5 times (even it it's the same item all 5 times) that counts as 5 items and you get more discount.

Also always compare their prices to your local stores. Sometimes it is MUCH cheaper to buy local, and sometimes MUCH cheaper to buy online. Toilet paper is much cheaper online, toothpaste is much cheaper locally for me.

For the soap bars, Grandma always opened them and allowed them to dry out. They always worked ok, but seemed to last forever! She was born in 1910 and lived through the great depression. I wish I had been smart enough to learn more from her when she was still around.

Anonymous said...

I prefer solid bar shampoo vs liquid as it takes less space, stores much longer and weights less.


tweell said...

Baby wipes go in the various bags we have in my household. Seal them in mylar for long term, otherwise they dry out.

As far as soap goes, my experience is that homemade glycerin soaps last twice as long as commercial bars. Lye is a handy chemical to have around for other reasons, so I stock above and beyond plumbing needs.

lynn said...

Oh gosh, grid down is gonna suck real bad.

I keep 30+ 24 bottle cases of Ozarka water in the garage at all times. The wife used to taunt me about them. No more, the big freeze in south Texas in Feb 2021 convinced her of the need for water storage. Our neighborhood relies on three common water wells, all the wells froze up and the diesel generators froze up too (they did not winterize the diesel which is incredibly simple to do by adding one gallon of regular unleaded to ten gallons of summer diesel. Drops the diesel cloud point (paraffin solidification) from 20 F to 0 F. Or heating the diesel to 100 F.).

Anyway, we had no way of flushing the house toilets into our house aerobic septic tank with no water. Answer, use the expensive cases of water for the duration of the emergency. BTW, if it is yellow, let it mellow. If it is brown, flush it down.

Redneck said...

If I showered twice a day I wouldn't use a bar in 10-14 days. In a grid-down situation, I'd use even less. Hands, pits, and crotch are all that really need it on a regular basis.

Anonymous said...

It's time to talk about Typhoid and Typhus. Bad water and bugs. Similar symptoms and treatments. Look up oral rehydration salts.
Also get a bottle of something to kill lice, scabies, bed bugs etc.
There is no end of prepping to do. Never enough done. Good luck