Natural disasters, industrial accidents and acts of terrorism scatter hazardous debris not just in the immediate point of impact, but often across miles of residential areas.
Airborne debris from destroyed buildings includes dust, soot, concrete powder, and in some instances — deadly asbestos.
In December 2014, a large cloud of smoke and asbestos engulfed Roermond, Netherlands, after a couple of massive boat sheds at a marina caught fire. Dutch officials declared it an emergency because asbestos dust from the burning boats covered most of the city’s homes, cars, streets and roofs.
While complete removal of asbestos in all U.S. structures is a near impossibility, disasters like these can potentially place thousands of Americans at risk of developing life-threatening diseases, including mesothelioma, asbestosis and asbestos lung cancer.
Roermond quickly shut down after the blaze as local shops, restaurants, schools, train stations and major roadways closed for more than 10 days while crews cleared asbestos from the city.
Officials urged the city’s 57,000 residents to keep their windows and doors closed and remain indoors during the citywide asbestos removal. If anyone wanted to leave, they first had to undergo a decontamination process. They also were asked to leave their shoes outside before entering any building.
An asbestos abatement company removed the asbestos dust and sprayed affected areas to prevent asbestos particles from floating in the wind.
In 2011, a catastrophic EF5 tornado (wind speeds greater than 200 mph) plowed through Joplin, Missouri, killing 158 people, injuring more than 1,000 others and causing $2.8 billion in damages.
Older homes and buildings in Joplin were constructed with materials containing asbestos. They also were painted with lead-based paint before it was banned in the U.S. in 1978. As the tornado tore apart countless homes, it spread these toxic materials throughout the southern part of the city.
Two months after the tornado struck, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a statement warning Joplin residents and anyone else involved in the cleanup efforts and demolition of damaged buildings to wear protective gear, including gloves and respirators to avoid the risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
The EPA also coordinated the removal of hazardous wastes, monitored the air for the presence of asbestos and developed plans for rebuilding houses, schools and other public buildings.
Hurricane Katrina, at one point a category 5 storm, killed more than 1,800 people in 2005, making it one of the five deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history.
Meteorologists recorded wind speeds greater than 140 mph as the storm blew through southeast Louisiana. Wind gusts exceeded 100 mph in New Orleans. Many of the area’s older homes containing asbestos products were destroyed.
The storm’s rain, strong winds and flooding spread loose asbestos fibers. Residents faced the destruction of their homes and community, as well as the potential dangers of asbestos exposure.
The EPA stated that more than 100 hazardous pollutants, including asbestos, likely contaminated the air, drinking water and flood waters after the hurricane.
Workers and volunteers who assisted in cleanup efforts were at highest risk of exposure because moving damaged asbestos products can release fibers into the air. Those who aided in cleanup efforts, including demolition of severely damaged buildings, often were not properly protected, increasing their risk of exposure.
Relief efforts continued well into 2008, exposing residents, workers and volunteers to asbestos for years after the hurricane struck.
Asbestos was a prevalent building material when the Twin Towers were built in the 1960s.
Its heat and chemical resistant properties, strength and affordability contributed to its wide use in dry wall, insulation and fireproof materials. An estimated 400 tons of asbestos were used in the construction of the World Trade Center.
In their undisturbed state, these materials were not hazardous. However, two hours after terrorists crashed the airlines into the towers on Sept. 11, 2001, both 110-story buildings collapsed, sending pulverized asbestos into the air.
As the towers fell, they also destroyed surrounding buildings, adding more asbestos to the massive amount already released.
EPA officials orchestrated a massive cleanup effort to vacuum debris and dust from the streets, monitor air and water for potential hazardous effects, dispose of debris and hazardous waste, create appropriate wash stations for workers and develop cleaning and testing programs for New York City residents.
Despite those efforts, the World Trade Health Registry and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimate about 410,000 people in the area were exposed to building material toxins, including asbestos.
Workers at Ground Zero are at highest risk of developing mesothelioma. Health officials expect a large number of those 9/11 workers will develop the disease in the coming years.
It’s important to remember the potential of asbestos exposure after a disaster — manmade or natural — can linger for years, continuously affecting the population.