Superstorm Sandy Scatters the Threat of Asbestos Exposure

Satellite imagery of Hurricane Sandy

Superstorm Sandy will be leaving behind more than the obvious death, destruction and darkness that it leveled on millions of Americans this week. It will leave behind more subtle dangers, too.

When the cleanup begins, another threat remains.

The risk of asbestos exposure has increased significantly in the wake of Sandy.

It happened in 2001 when the World Trade Center in New York crumbled from a terrorist attack. It happened in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina leveled a good portion of New Orleans. It happened in 2011 when tornadoes tore through Tuscaloosa, Ala., leaving so much devastation behind.

Asbestos was used so liberally in the construction of America in the 20th century that most major destruction today brings dangers in the debris.

The inhalation or ingestion of microscopic asbestos fibers can lead to a variety of respiratory issues, including mesothelioma cancer. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that once was coveted for its ability to fireproof, soundproof and insulate.

It’s in the pipes, the floors, the roofs and everything in between. When properly encapsulated, asbestos poses little danger. When disturbed and disrupted – which happens during this kind of disaster –it becomes airborne and potentially lethal.

An estimated 3,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with mesothelioma, but approximately 10,000 die each year from an asbestos-related disease. Because the latency period between exposure and diagnosis can be so long (10 to 50 years), it takes decades before the full force of these disasters can be measured.

When the floods recede and the lights return after Sandy, and the calculation of damages bring untold tales of woe, asbestos will become the silent peril in the aftermath of the storm that wreaked havoc on the Eastern Seaboard.

According to the Associated Press, 38 Americans already have died and more than 8.2 million were without power after the much-anticipated storm roared ashore in New Jersey with sustained winds of 80 mph. Sandy was responsible for an estimated 70 deaths in the Caribbean before it headed North.

A half dozen row houses in Baltimore collapsed from the weight of the wind and rain, sending dangerous debris into the street. Close to 100 homes in the Breezy Point section of Queens, New York, caught fire in the flood, where residents had to be rescued by boat.

A construction crane atop a luxury high-rise in Manhattan collapsed. Thousands were evacuated nearby, where an unprecedented storm surge of seawater gushed into Manhattan, flooding tunnels, subway stations and the electrical system that powers the most vibrant city in America.

The chairman of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority said that Sandy caused the worst damage in the 108-year history of the extensive subway system.

At least one New York City hospital was evacuated when emergency generators failed. Trading at the New York Stock Exchange was canceled both Monday and Tuesday, the first time since 1888 that weather caused the suspension of operations for two consecutive days.

“It was a devastating storm, maybe the worst that we have ever experienced,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg after surveying the damage.

In some neighborhoods with flooded streets, cars were scattered like leaves in the wind. Most bridges around the city were closed.

Airlines cancelled close to 15,000 flights in the previous three days. Problems were reported at two nuclear power plants on the New York/New Jersey coast. A good portion of Atlantic City’s world-famous Boardwalk collapsed from the power of the storm.

The city of Hoboken, which is across the Hudson River from Manhattan, was flooded. Jersey City was closed to all automobile traffic. In the small town of Moonachie, residents in a trailer park were evacuated just before their neighborhood was flooded.

“The devastation on the Jersey Shore is some of the worst we’ve ever seen,” New Jersey governor Chris Christie said. “The cost of the storm is incalculable at this point.”

Although disaster relief already is arriving, and the areas eventually will recover, it will take months for all the damage to be repaired and years before everything is made right again. Asbestos particles surely will be airborne in the meantime.

As a startling reminder of what happened before and how long recovery can take, water flooded into the gaping, unfinished construction pit where the World Trade Center once sat. An estimated 400 tons of asbestos was used in its original construction, and much of it scattered upon its collapse.

No one knows how much asbestos was disturbed in the wide path of Sandy, but it leaves a reminder that the coast is not clear, even as the winds and the rain begin to slow.


Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His most recent experience is in researching and writing about asbestos litigation issues and asbestos-related conditions like mesothelioma. If you have a story idea for Tim, please email him at tpovtak@asbestos.com

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