Asbestos and Natural Disasters
When a natural disaster occurs, the predominant survivor concerns include remaining hazards, food and water distribution, road accessibility, and clean-up efforts, as well as the human, financial and environmental loss and devastation. Generally speaking, these concerns are addressed by emergency personnel, whose training allows them to protect individuals from potential hazards in disaster aftermath. However, few emergency personnel are trained for, or even aware of, the dangers of potential asbestos exposure which commonly accompanies natural disasters.
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Risks of Asbestos
Used in the construction of homes, offices, schools, factories and other buildings from the late 1800s through the 1970s, asbestos materials remain in many buildings still standing today. While various construction materials contain asbestos, the mineral can generally be considered safe as long as it remains contained in the walls, ceiling, roof or flooring of a structure. However, potential health risks due to asbestos exposure occur when the structural integrity of these buildings is compromised. Once severely damaged or destroyed, asbestos fibers have the opportunity to fragment into tiny particles which can then enter the air after even minor contact. Common construction materials containing asbestos may include:
- Insulation for interior walls, flooring and ceiling
- Pipe covering and other plumbing
- Roofing and siding
Health Risks of Asbestos
If sources of asbestos in construction are disrupted, fibers may become airborne, leading to easy inhalation or ingestion. These fibers are very small and tend to become stuck in the protective lining of the lungs, stomach or heart, eventually developing into a lethal condition because the body cannot dispel them. Once trapped inside the body, they may cause terminal conditions such as lung cancer, asbestosis or mesothelioma. Fortunately, the government has mandated specific abatement procedures for the safe removal of asbestos by licensed companies.
Although these abatement professionals possess extensive training and experience covering the removal of asbestos from buildings, they may not be able to help in the event of a disaster. The process of safe abatement, or asbestos removal, may be too lengthy and comprehensive in the event of a natural disaster due to strict government guidelines for the handling and removal of asbestos. Specifically, the total devastation common in many natural disasters means carefully containing asbestos particles, which is necessary to proper removal, is impossible, as it may be difficult to locate these materials in the first place. However, the Environmental Protection has accounted for these extenuating circumstances by allowing for abatement concessions during times of emergency.
No Action Assurance
Some communities that have suffered natural disasters, such as those impacted most heavily by Hurricane Katrina, were able to obtain what is known as a No Action Assurance (NAA) letter from the EPA. This letter allows for the circumvention of several procedural guidelines in order to remove asbestos more quickly. Typically given after major natural disasters which call for the demolishment of structurally-unsound buildings, as well as to perform cleanup on a massive scale, NAA letters are critical for communities that require fast asbestos removal following a major environmental catastrophe. Allowing freed asbestos fibers to scatter after a natural disaster can put entire communities at risk.
Events for which communities have obtained NAA letters include earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and fires. When faced with structurally-unsound construction, community exposure to asbestos in the air is deemed to be a more pressing threat than accidental exposure risks possible during asbestos removal. This leads victims of such natural disasters to seek the far more expeditious asbestos cleanup and removal solutions authorized by the NAA letter.
Other Methods of Exposure Prevention
Unfortunately, when a natural disaster occurs, asbestos exposure and the potential health risks associated with it are only one in a long list of other concerns. Being aware of this toxic material before a natural disaster occurs, and properly abating or insulating older buildings and facilities prior to an event, is a far safer way of avoiding exposure later. If this was not done, the EPA explains that these dangerous materials “should be handled while still wet or damp, double bagged and labeled.” Furthermore, gloves, goggles and a face mask should be worn during removal, while activities that may generate dust, like sweeping and vacuuming debris, should be avoided. The EPA also recommends moving family members from high exposure areas until it is certain all sources of this material have been removed.