Natural disasters pose dangers to human from the moment they occur, and the aftermath of them also presents concerns for safety. The availability of shelter, electricity, food, water and medical care are primary issues. But natural disasters also pose a threat to human health in the long run. The reason? Because events like earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and fires can expose human beings to asbestos and asbestos-containing products and materials.
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 contained. But once ripped, broken and burned, blown or washed away, the products become a possible health hazard: asbestos exposure lays the groundwork for the human body to develop mesothelioma cancer years after the exposure.
The hazard stems from toxic asbestos fibers becoming airborne. When this happens, emergency response crews and early response volunteers face an increased risk for asbestos exposure after a natural disaster because they typically arrive first on the disaster scene.
So soon after a natural disaster, these fibers may continue to circulate in the air, making them easily inhaled. Firefighters, law enforcement officials and cleanup crews are considered high-risk occupations for 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 by which asbestos fibers can be released and inhaled or ingested. Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi, tornadoes in Alabama and Missouri, fires in California and flooding in Missouri and New Jersey from Hurricane Sandy are examples of natural disasters that officials fear exposed the public to asbestos.
Fire and asbestos have an intriguing history with each other. Asbestos is one of the most heat-resistant substances known to man, yet it can be highly toxic when it is confronted by fire. The seemly magical ability of the material not to burn was displayed by the Roman Emperor Charlemagne (800-814 A.D.), who used an asbestos tablecloth to convince barbarian guests he had supernatural powers. After the banquet he would throw the tablecloth into the fire and leave it for a while to burn off all of the food scraps and then snatch it from the flames to show everyone that it was not burned and clean.
Today, asbestos tablecloths are not part of dinner, and any fire around asbestos is considered a danger to public health. There are plenty of examples why.
For example, the historic Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago in 1903, quickly spread out of control when the asbestos curtain became hung up on the stage lights and could not be lowered. Many of the projection booths in theaters were also treated with the fireproof material to contain any fire resulting from the highly combustible nitrocellulose film that was used through the 1930s. Asbestos shields were placed under furnaces and stoves to protect wooden floors while asbestos roofs and ceilings prevented the spread of chimney and roof fires.
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 did catch fire, those products were exposed in various ways, leading to toxic contamination. Smoke also carries contaminants.
Learn to Keep You and Your Loved Ones Safe from Asbestos Dangers.Get Your Free Asbestos Guide
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 toxins, including minute asbestos fibers, particularly when hazardous materials are burned. Materials of particular concern related to asbestos are insulation, roof materials, drywall, ceiling tiles, flooring and asphalt.
To limit exposure to hazardous materials, the Centers for Disease Control 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 asbestos levels present.
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 the existence of 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, including:
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 of fire asbestos-contaminated debris affecting the local environment.
Find out who concealed asbestos risks from their employees.Learn More
On March 7, 2007, the 80-year-old Planters Hotel in Brawley, Calif., 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 if the structure contained asbestos and about possible health effects. An experienced California contractor later stated that the building did contain asbestos and lead and projected abatement costs at more than $800,000.
On March 29, 2009, the former Army Medical Depot Hospital in Alameda, Calif., caught fire and burned for 19 hours. Residents later reported finding fire residue in their yards, on their 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 $1 million to clean up the burned-down facility.
Asbestos Containing Materials Found in Homes
A home damaged by flood waters can expose asbestos through damaged flooring, drywall and ceilings. Water can damage even the strongest structures, and once they invade a home or building they can break down asbestos into fine fibers. When the fibers dry out, they can become airborne and can be easily inhaled during cleanup.
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. Common household materials that may contain asbestos include:
Having a house or other facility damaged by water is not the only way floods can make asbestos fibers become airborne. The naturally occurring mineral is found some parts of California, Virginia and New Jersey (and across the globe in Turkey and Corsica) in asbestos-bearing rock. It is close enough to the surface that construction and other activities can disturb it, leading to release of high concentrations of asbestos fibers into the air and dust.
These rocks are harmless until crushed into a fine dust that releases microscopic asbestos fibers. During a flood these fibers are easily carried in the waters.
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 in homes.
For severely damaged structures built before 1980, demolition should only be performed by individuals who are trained in the provisions of the asbestos NESHAP regulations and a MDEQ certified asbestos abatement supervisor should be on-site or available by cell phone to the demolition site, 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 as required by OSHA regulations. It is recommended to make sure the structure is damp and fold in the walls to the center to confine the asbestos particles.
Common Household Matierals Containing Asbestos
An earthquake occurs when two blocks of the earth suddenly slip past one another. Earthquakes strike suddenly, and often create significant damage to buildings and can also trigger tsunami waves that cause damaging waves along coastal communities.
Three recent examples of large-scale earthquakes around the world are giving experts concerns about the level of exposure to asbestos. Quakes in Sichuan, China; Christchurch, New Zealand; and in Japan have not yet been tied to any cases of mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases. All of the diseases generally have a 20- to 50-year latency period between exposure and the presence of symptoms.
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 had been made using 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 the risk of disturbing substantial quantities of asbestos fibers, particularly when using heavy equipment to demolish damaged structures and load the rubble into vehicles. These asbestos fibers were a determined to be 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 the cleanup and to safely dispose of asbestos waste in the areas affected by an earthquake.
Following the Christchurch earthquake on May 27, 2011, in New Zealand, the Canterbury District Health Board member Andrew Dickerson said the group would have to deal with 4.25 million tons of rubble in coming months. Dickerson expressed concerns to the public about exposure to things like asbestos, toxins from electronic waste, toxins in the dust and toxins from treated timber. Thousands of homes contained asbestos, and owners were often unaware that the material was present and the health risks from exposure to the airborne fiber.
“This is a very serious matter,” said Darrell MacLean, president of Suburban Middlesex Insulation who has more than 25 years’ 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.”
The massive earthquake that hit Japan 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. However, inside the debris of houses, building and insulation materials that were shattered and spread out by the massive waves is asbestos. 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 used to such work, thereby increasing the risk of contracting asbestos-related diseases. 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.
Generally 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 building and insulation 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.
Further, it is unlikely that the workers will, in the first instance, be provided with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), thus increasing their risk of long-term health problems. Many people will also be unaware of proper abatement methods for the proper cleanup and removal of the 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 have three primary sources of destruction: powerful winds, storm surge, and rain. Storm surges cause flooding along coastlines, causing much of the damage and resulting debris. The damaged structures release the dangerous asbestos fibers.
Debris can expose homeowners, emergency workers and volunteers participating in the cleanup process to hazardous materials that can contain asbestos. The amount of debris from 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, Fla., Hurricane Andrew created 43 million cubic yards of disaster debris. Earlier in mid-November of 1969, the department of defense removed more than 37,000 tons of debris and the 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 and Mississippi on Aug. 29, 2005, and deposited 64.3 million cubic yards of waste.
In an analysis of the debris handling system for Katrina results have shown that household hazardous wastes were not consistently segregated. More than 9,375,000 cubic feet of debris transported to nearby landfills following the hurricane was from New Orleans homes that 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 increasing exposure risks to damaged asbestos fibers. 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 houses 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 regulations for storm cleanup.
Nicknamed the “Frankenstorm,” Sandy is considered the biggest Atlantic Storm in history. 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, N.J., flooded, and 24 people in New Jersey died because of the storm.
Asbestos experts harbor fears about those who survived Sandy and may have come into contact with asbestos materials. Cities in New York and New Jersey are among some of the oldest in the United States, which means many facilities were built long before asbestos was a known carcinogen.
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 segregate wastes prior to burning. As conditions allow, homeowners should segregate the following types of materials and stage them for subsequent appropriate disposal:
Tornadoes can last only for a few minutes and they can last for more than an hour, yet in either case their ability to destroy property and cause potentially hazardous exposure to asbestos is a specific concern to those assigned with the task of cleaning up the debris. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and several state-affiliated departments of health and natural resources have issued guidelines for effective management of asbestos-related building debris to minimize potential exposure to airborne particles.
A tornado is a violent circulating column of wind that forms when a storm cell intersects with an ample upward supply of warm air. This weather event creates a circulating funnel-shaped cloud that extends downward to touch the earth. At its most extreme, a tornado can sustain wind speeds up to 300 mph and stretch more than a mile high. Tornadoes are considered one of nature’s most violent storms and have the potential to cause destruction to everything in their path.
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.
In the late afternoon of 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,” the EPA stated. “People involved in disaster cleanup efforts may be exposed to asbestos-containing materials.”
If asbestos-containing materials are suspected during cleanup, experts recommended you leave them alone. Stirring up asbestos-containing debris can result in airborne asbestos fibers and exposure is highly likely. 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.
Some communities receive No Action Assurance letters from the 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.
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.
Matt Mauney is an award-winning journalist with nearly a decade of professional writing experience. He joined Asbestos.com in 2016, and he spends much of his time reading, analyzing and reporting on mesothelioma research articles to ensure people in the mesothelioma community know the latest medical advancements. Prior to joining Asbestos.com, Matt was a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel. Matt also edits some of the pages on the website.
View our resources for patients and familiesGet Help Today