In the wake of deadly tornadoes that ravaged communities in Alabama, government agencies caution emergency workers and residents who are combing through debris containing an invisible threat: Asbestos fibers.
Because of the massive amount of destruction, asbestos fibers are believed to have been disturbed in the older homes and buildings during the tornadoes.
Inhalation and ingestion of asbestos fibers has been linked to the development of a number of different diseases, including asbestosis and malignant mesothelioma. Once asbestos fibers become lodged in human tissue, they create cellular changes that can lead to the development of asbestos-related diseases. Because asbestos fibers are microscopic, they are not visible to the human eye and many people inhale them unknowingly.
Craig Tucker of the Jefferson County Department of Public Health recently commented on the hidden potential health risks, saying, “The likelihood is probably pretty high. Asbestos is a pretty common material in older homes and businesses, so it’s going to be there. I think the risk is pretty low though at this time.” However, Tucker further stated that, “when the material becomes crushed, more of a powdered state, that’s when you’ve got the potential for the asbestos fibers to become airborne and then cause the greatest damage to the public’s health.”
Health officials have advocated that ordinary dust masks are not enough to prevent exposure, and half face type masks with double HEPA filters can provide nearly 100 percent protection. Officials have encouraged any people cleaning up debris to take a minimum amount of respiratory protection.
Johnny Burnette of the Walker County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) noted, “We’re trying to make sure that they all understand that there’s nails in boards, that you’ve got to be careful where you step, what you’re breathing.”
However, in cities like Cullman, the downtown area has been inspected for items suspected to bear airborne asbestos and health officials have yet to discover any significant traces of the mineral.
In a letter, Chief Building Inspector Rick Fulmer wrote that all materials should be handled with caution to reduce dust and be covered during transport.