Natural disasters pose dangers from the moment they occur, and the aftermath presents concerns for safety. The availability of shelter, electricity, food, water and medical care are primary concerns. Natural disasters also pose a threat of asbestos exposure to people who help in recovery efforts.
A large number of homes and commercial buildings constructed prior to the 1980s were built with asbestos materials. Those products are considered safe as long as they are in good condition. But once ripped, broken, burned, blown or washed away, the products release asbestos fibers into the air.
As the first people on the scene, emergency response crews and early response volunteers face an increased risk for asbestos exposure in the wake of a natural disaster. The risk of health effects to these workers increases over time and depends upon how many times they are exposed to asbestos. The more often someone is exposed to asbestos on the job, the higher their risk of developing asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma.
Occupations at Risk of Exposure from Disasters
Firefighters, law enforcement officials and cleanup crews are considered high-risk occupations for asbestos exposure after natural disasters. Homeowners of damaged properties also face these risks and should always use caution when cleaning or searching through debris.
Each natural disaster presents a particular set of circumstances through which asbestos fibers can be released and inhaled or ingested. Examples of natural disasters that officials fear exposed the public to asbestos include tornadoes in Alabama and Missouri, fires in California, and hurricanes in Louisiana, Texas, Florida and New Jersey.
Asbestos Exposure Prevention After a Disaster
If asbestos-containing materials are suspected during cleanup, experts recommend you leave them alone. Stirring up asbestos-containing debris can result in airborne asbestos fibers and exposure is highly likely at that point.
Common Household Materials Containing Asbestos
- Roofing felt
- Pipe lagging
- Block insulation
- Appliance components
- Ceiling products
- Cement board
- Gardening products
- Table pads
- Fireplace decorations
- Taping compounds and plasters
- Electrical insulation and panels
- Heating and cooling systems
Some communities receive No Action Assurance letters from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) following a disaster. This policy allows regulatory flexibility while cleaning up damaged structures that may contain asbestos. Such letters are only given during times of extreme hardship.
Once received, structures containing asbestos can be demolished without removing asbestos, but then all of the debris must be managed under normal asbestos regulations. No Action Assurance letters were distributed to neighborhoods in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. If this happens in your area, wear masks and other protective equipment to limit the possibility of exposure.
Consider these tips to minimize exposure:
- If materials must be moved before professional help arrives, wet them first so that the fibers are less likely to become airborne. Asbestos abatement contractors will be familiar with proper removal and disposal regulations. In each state, there are regulations that govern the removal and management of asbestos-containing materials after a natural disaster.
- To minimize your exposure, use only properly fitted NIOSH-Approved, N-100, P-100 or R-100 respirators. Do not use paper masks, handkerchiefs or other, lower grades of air respirators, which will provide you with little or no protection from asbestos fibers.
- Keep all asbestos related debris wet and covered to minimize dust, and always wear additional protective gear, such as boots, coveralls and gloves during removal.
- Double-bag all building debris.
- Enclose the work-area with plastic sheeting and duct-tape to minimize dust.
- Only disturb construction materials that must be removed and minimize any excess breakage to prevent the release of dust and fibers into the air.
- Be sure to thoroughly shower and wash once you have completed debris removal to remove any dust and fibers that could become airborne.
Homeowners, first responders and cleanup crews need to take these tips seriously, especially if they are at risk of being exposed to asbestos in their daily life through their occupation such as firefighters and construction workers.
Different types of natural disasters present a variety of exposure risks. For example, tornados may carry asbestos debris from one location to another, while floods may contaminate local waterways and neighborhoods with asbestos materials. Fires present a greater risk to firefighters than other emergency responders. Hurricanes pose a variety of exposure threats from related tornados and flooding.
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Fire and asbestos have an intriguing history. Asbestos is one of the most heat-resistant substances known to man, yet it can be highly toxic when it is damaged by fire.
For a great part of the 19th century and most of the 20th century, products made with asbestos or with some asbestos products were used to keep houses, ships, buildings, pipes and other things from getting too hot and from catching fire. But when structures catch fire, asbestos products become damaged and release carcinogenic fibers that become airborne and transportable by smoke.
Smoke from debris piles is made up of carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide, fine particulate matter, hydrocarbons and other organic and non-organic substances. Smoke can contain toxic materials, including microscopic asbestos fibers, particularly when hazardous materials are burned. Materials of particular concern that contain asbestos include insulation, roofing materials, drywall, ceiling tiles, flooring and shingles.
To limit exposure to hazardous materials, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends individuals remain at least 1,000 feet away from burning debris piles and wear appropriate protective clothing. Most protective equipment that firefighters use will eliminate the exposure to the fibers but in the secondary stages of the fire, firefighters may remove the protective gear for greater comfort and not realize that there may be high levels of asbestos present.
Asbestos in Debris
Fires leave a residue of ashes, half-burned materials and unburned materials that are otherwise destroyed or ruined. This debris is almost always removed from a fire site and sometimes it contains dangerous asbestos. Only if a fire site is examined specifically for asbestos can cleanup workers be assured that none of the mineral is present. Three fires in California — in Malibu, Brawley and Alameda — serve as examples.
In Malibu, California, a coastal community hit hard by fires in 1993, 268 houses were destroyed. Most burned to their foundations. The city gave property owners six weeks to remove debris and then began removing remaining household debris. In clearing fire debris, the city collected the same amount of solid waste normally collected in an entire year. Later, the California State License Board widely acknowledged that homes constructed between 1930 and 1950 may have contained asbestos in 16 areas.
During these types of massive residential cleanups, homeowners and business owners sometimes handle asbestos-containing materials. While this work may be performed by homeowners legally, most are not skilled in identifying asbestos-containing materials and are often unaware of proper removal methods.
The result is that neighborhood cleanup operations may create an accumulation of asbestos-containing waste in local landfills, creating a hazardous site that can impact even more people. Many communities have recognized the potential asbestos-contaminated debris affecting the local environment.
Planters Hotel Fire
On March 7, 2007, the 80-year-old Planters Hotel in Brawley, California, was demolished in an arson fire. The city of Brawley put two streets adjacent to the once-historic, four-story hotel off limits to the public. Residents raised concerns as to whether the structure contained asbestos and about possible health effects. An experienced California contractor later stated that the building did contain asbestos and lead, and that projected abatement costs are more than $800,000.
Army Medical Depot Fire
On March 29, 2009, the former Army Medical Depot Hospital in Alameda, California, caught fire and burned for 19 hours. Residents later reported fire residue in their yards, on vehicles and in the streets. They inquired whether the residue contained lead, asbestos or other hazardous material. Alameda city officials determined the hospital had been contaminated with asbestos, and the city’s redevelopment agency is spending more than $1 million to clean up the area.
A home affected by flood waters becomes a source of asbestos exposure because damaged flooring, drywall and ceilings may contain asbestos. Water can damage even the strongest structures and damage asbestos products in ways that release fibers when the material dries.
Asbestos was used in more than 3,000 construction materials and manufactured products and was used as a part of new home construction or remodeling until the early 1980s.
Naturally Occurring Asbestos and Flooding
Floods can also disturb naturally occurring asbestos deposits. Asbestos fibers from natural deposits are easily carried by flood waters into communities and local water sources.
For example, in parts of the North Cascades in Washington State, the mineral was released by a slow-moving landslide and then was carried into the Swift River. When the river flooded, asbestos fibers were deposited into residents’ yards and homes.
Demolition After Floods
For severely damaged structures built before 1980, demolition should only be performed by individuals who are trained in the asbestos NESHAP regulations and a MDEQ-certified asbestos abatement supervisor should be on-site or available by cell phone, to provide guidance and assistance.
All demolition workers should use equipment specifically designed to protect them from asbestos exposure during demolition and handling of debris, especially respirators that are required by OSHA regulations. It is recommended to wet the structure and to fold in the walls to the center to confine the asbestos particles.
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Earthquakes are the vibrations caused by blocks of earth breaking and moving under stress. Earthquakes strike suddenly, and often create significant damage to buildings and can also trigger tsunami waves that damage coastal communities.
Three recent examples of large-scale earthquakes include the quakes in China, New Zealand and Japan.
On May 12, 2008, an earthquake in Sichuan, China, destroyed many buildings, including hospitals, schools, government offices and private homes. The external walls, roofs, window awnings and bathrooms in many of these buildings were made with asbestos cement sheets — commonly known as “fibro” or “fibro cement.” The earthquake broke the fibro into small pieces, releasing fine fibers of asbestos at the broken edges.
During cleanup operations, there was a risk of disturbing substantial quantities of asbestos fibers, particularly when using heavy equipment to demolish damaged structures and loading the rubble into vehicles. The asbestos fibers present were determined to be a significant risk to public health. A joint statement by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Program provides a guideline on how to control the risk of cleanup and to safely dispose of asbestos waste in the areas affected by an earthquake.
Christchurch, New Zealand
Following the Christchurch earthquake on May 27, 2011, Canterbury District Health Board member Andrew Dickerson said they would have to deal with 4.25 million tons of rubble in coming months. Dickerson expressed concerns to the public about exposure to things such as asbestos and toxins from electronic waste, dust and treated timber. Thousands of homes contained asbestos, and owners were often unaware that the material was present.
“This is a very serious matter,” said Darrell MacLean, president of Suburban Middlesex Insulation, who has more than 25 years of experience dealing with environmental hazards. “When an old building is demolished, like many were in Christchurch and the suburban areas by the earthquake, there are massive amounts of toxic materials released and exposed which are a definite danger to those working in the debris, those living close by and those who have to haul it away,” said MacLean.
The massive earthquake that hit Japan on March 13, 2011, destroyed many buildings and lives, caused massive tsunamis that desolated entire towns and also caused their nuclear power plant to leak dangerous radiation. In addition to this destruction, asbestos fibers were released into the air from crumbled homes and buildings. According to the health ministry, structures built before Japan’s 2006 asbestos ban may have used the material for heating insulation. Experts said it would be difficult to identify the asbestos material amid the debris.
In addition, many people removing debris were temporary workers, residents and volunteers not accustomed to such work, who may not have known to take certain safety precautions. Although the ministry has distributed 90,000 dust prevention masks, many workers prefer not to wear them because they restrict breathing and they are uncomfortable to wear when temperatures are hot.
Asbestos Risks During Earthquake Cleanup
During cleanup of damaged and destroyed buildings after an earthquake, it is likely that there will be a need to handle, break up and dispose of asbestos-containing materials. Much of this work may be undertaken by temporary laborers, volunteers and local residents who are unaware of the hazards of asbestos and who may be unable to identify asbestos-containing material.
It is unlikely that the workers will initially be provided with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). Many people will also be unaware of abatement methods for the proper cleanup and removal of asbestos materials. As a result of the cleanup operations, there may be an accumulation of asbestos-containing waste that will present a hazard to people in the local environment and those living in close proximity to the site of final disposal.
Hurricanes present three primary sources of destruction: powerful winds, storm surge and rain. Storm surges lead to flooding along coastlines, damaging homes, hotels and public spaces. Powerful winds and tornadoes can destroy homes and buildings, while heavy rains cause flash floods.
Debris can expose homeowners, emergency workers and volunteers participating in the cleanup process to hazardous materials that can contain asbestos. The amount of debris that piles up after a hurricane is significant and can quickly overwhelm a community and breakdown normally strict guidelines for handling hazardous materials.
For example, in August 1992, in Metro-Dade County, Florida, Hurricane Andrew created 43 million cubic yards of disaster debris. In mid-November of 1969, the U.S. Department of Defense removed more than 37,000tons of debris and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers removed 1.25 million tons of debris left by Hurricane Camille.
The greatest recorded amount of disaster-related debris in U.S. history was left behind by Hurricane Katrina, which hit Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama on August 29, 2005. It resulted in 64.3 million cubic yards of waste in Louisiana, 45.8 million cubic yards of waste in Mississippi, and 3.4 million cubic yards of waste in Alabama.
Household hazardous wastes were not consistently separated in the wake of Katrina, according to an analysis of the debris. More than 9,375,000 cubic feet of debris transported from New Orleans homes to nearby landfills following the hurricane contained asbestos. To speed the removal of debris, asbestos regulations during demolition were relaxed.
Proper methods for transportation of hazardous debris were also not always followed. Because the closest landfills were used, they may not have been suitable for the material that was dumped there. As a result, there are concerns regarding groundwater contamination from the three main landfills in the New Orleans area.
Almost immediately after Hurricane Sandy swept through the upper mid-Atlantic in December 2012, health officials in New York and New Jersey warned residents to be careful as they cleaned up their homes and neighborhoods. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration outlined dangers of mold, asbestos and lead paint and highlighted regulations for storm cleanup.
Nicknamed the “Frankenstorm,” Sandy was considered the biggest Atlantic Storm in history before Hurricane Irma hit Florida in 2017. Its size rivaled that of the state of Texas, and it affected residents in 24 states, most of them along the Atlantic seaboard. More than 50 deaths are attributed to the storm. Virginia, New York and New Jersey were states hit hardest. The East River overflowed, and large parts of Lower Manhattan were flooded. Half of Hoboken flooded, and 24 people in New Jersey died because of the storm.
Risks from Burning Hurricane Debris
To reduce the amount of waste and avoid filling up landfills, many communities will often burn hurricane debris. These communities will require good faith efforts of residents to separate wastes prior to burning. As conditions allow, homeowners should separate the following types of materials and stage them for subsequent appropriate disposal:
Debris to Separate
- Automotive/marine batteries
- Pesticide cans
- Automotive oils
- Fuels and fluids
- Paint thinners and strippers
- Compressed gas containers
- Domestic garbage
- Preserved woods
- PCBs (electrical equipment such as distribution transformers and capacitors)
- Electronics (televisions, radios, stereos, cameras, VCRs, computers and microwaves)
- Household white goods (refrigerators, washers, dryers and stoves)
- Asbestos-containing materials (asbestos shingles, siding and insulation)
Tornadoes can destroy property and cause potentially hazardous exposure to asbestos among people who clean up the debris. The EPA and several state-affiliated departments of health and natural resources have issued guidelines for effective management of asbestos building debris to minimize exposure.
Two recent touchdowns of tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Joplin, Missouri, are examples of what homeowners and businesses can face. Both cities were struck in 2011, and in both cases government officials warned citizens about the long-term dangers they could face if they did not take proper care in their cleanup.
On April 27, 2011, one of the largest recorded tornadoes in American history swept through northern Alabama, touching down in the college town of Tuscaloosa and cutting a swath west to east toward Chattanooga, Tennessee. In all, 60 people were killed, including 44 in Tuscaloosa. The National Weather Service later determined the EF4 storm was on the ground for 80.3 miles. Alabama health officials said there was a high likelihood of asbestos in the tornado debris but also confirmed that the state was not regulating potential exposure.
On May 22, 2011, an EF5 multiple-vortex tornado tore through Joplin, leveling homes and businesses and causing loss of life. More than 8,000 structures were wiped out, and more than 150 people were killed and 900 others were injured. The tornado struck the local hospital, killing six.
Two months after the tornado, the EPA issued an advisory for Joplin residents that debris left from the severe weather event could contain asbestos. “At other tornado sites, asbestos has not been found at levels of health concern. However, because of the age of many structures and the extent of tornado damage in Joplin, asbestos may be present among the debris and could be released. People involved in disaster cleanup efforts may be exposed to asbestos-containing materials,” the EPA stated.
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Last Modified August 19, 2019