Disease warning as home owners begin to clean up

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Public health experts warned of the dangers of infection from contaminated mud left behind by last week's floods as hundreds of home owners began a massive clear-up operation yesterday.

Public health experts warned of the dangers of infection from contaminated mud left behind by last week's floods as hundreds of home owners began a massive clear-up operation yesterday.

Water companies said pipes and houses inundated by the storms could now harbour bacteria from raw sewage. Bottled water was being delivered to residents in Lewes, East Sussex, one of the worst-hit towns.

Renewed storms did not bring more flooding as feared, but warnings remained on three stretches of the Ouse around Lewes and Newhaven. Almost an inch of rain fell in parts of East Sussex and north Kent during the day.

The Environment Agency said all rivers which had burst their banks, including the Medway in Kent and the Ouse, had returned to safe levels, but there was still a danger of contamination and further rain.

Simon Taylor, a spokesman for the Environment Agency, said: "The waters are receding. But what they are now revealing is the picture of devastation and filth that those who were flooded out are now having to face," he said. "There is plenty of help to hand for residents from ourselves and local authorities but. There are obvious health risks from the muck now settled in people's homes and on streets."

A sticky black residue, caused by silt washed off fields into raging rivers, contains raw sewage from flooded water treatment works, heating oil and possibly agricultural chemicals and pesticides. Mr Taylor said: "It is unpleasant stuff and although any sewage and oil will have been very diluted there are obvious risks. People clearing up should wear gloves and clothing that they can then throw away."

Home owners in the most devastated areas, including Yalding in Kent, Uckfield in East Sussex and Lewes, were warned their homes could take up to six months to dry out.

Residents were returning to their homes after a weekend in local authority accommodation or with friends. Nicky Howlett, 64, from Sissinghurst in Kent, said: "When I went back to my house it stank. It was a like a mixture of rotten carpets and an unflushed toilet. It's going to take weeks to get rid of the stench."

The Environment Agency said it would be testing rivers for chemical and pesticide contamination as well as ensuring that sewage from damaged pumping stations was not pouring into water courses.

The three main water companies in the areas affected by the flooding - Southern Water, Mid Kent Water and South East Water - said drinking water supplies had not been contaminated. But Southern Water distributed bottled water to residents in Lewes and other areas amid concern that its plumbing systems were contaminated. A spokeswoman said: "Where the water was deep enough to reach taps and pipes there is obviously the risk that they contain some material. Until customers can flush out their system, we are supplying bottled water."

Estimates of the total repair bill have ranged from £1bn to £4bn. There were calls for insurance companies not to blacklist businesses in places including Uckfield, where the town centre was flooded for the third time in a year. Adrian Corbin, chairman of the Uckfield Chamber of Commerce, said: "I know of several shop owners who cannot get insurance. We expect premiums to soar and some companies to refuse cover."

Meanwhile, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution announced proposals for an inland lifeboat service. Planners at the organisation, which receives no public funding, believe the increased frequency of floods means riverside stations equipped with shallow-water boats are now necessary.

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