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No matter where you live, a natural disaster can happen, often striking with little or no warning. Depending on where you live, a flood, earthquake, hurricane, tornado, or landslide can destroy homes and businesses in the area.
Adding even more danger to the destructive nature of these events is the possibility of building damage releasing toxic substances into the environment. Once un-contained, these substances can contaminate air, water, and soil in the area. Asbestos is one substance present in many older buildings that can be exposed during a natural disaster. Not only should you be prepared for a natural disaster, but you should also be ready for the potential risk of asbestos exposure. Know what to do when it happens to keep everyone safe.
The Danger of Being Exposed to Asbestos
Asbestos is a natural mineral that was used in many structures built prior to the 1970s. This substance is not harmful when contained. However, once disturbed, asbestos can break apart, releasing tiny fibers into the environment. These microscopic, needle-like fibers are dangerous because they can contaminate air, water, and soil leading to inhalation and ingestion.
When asbestos fibers enter the body, they become lodged in tissue, causing damage and triggering serious disease. Not everyone exposed to asbestos will develop a progressive and terminal disease like mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis. However, some will. Avoiding exposure to asbestos is important because there is no way to determine who will get sick.
Where Asbestos Can Be Found Now
In the 1970s, the federal government placed restrictions on asbestos use. However, before these regulations were enacted, most buildings were constructed with it. Asbestos was used in insulation, roofing materials, siding, wallboard, joint compound, fireproofing and soundproofing, flooring tiles, adhesives, and many other specialty construction products.
While most buildings constructed after the late 1970s were not made with asbestos, there many older buildings that contain the mineral. Industrial buildings may also have significant amounts of asbestos. Facilities like factories, oil refineries, chemical plants, power plants, and metal refineries, often have asbestos in the buildings, machinery and equipment used in the buildings. Any asbestos in older homes and industrial buildings can potentially cause serious contamination during a natural disaster.
How Natural Disasters Cause Asbestos Contamination
Natural disasters often cause complete chaos. One way they can potentially harm communities is by destroying buildings and releasing toxic materials into the environment. Asbestos may be well contained and safe in a particular building until it is ripped apart by flood waters or destroyed by fire. No matter how safe asbestos is before a disaster, it may become damaged, scattering fibers into the air or water.
Although it resists heat and fire, asbestos can be exposed during a fire when materials around it are burned away. The smoke and ashes from a fire may be contaminated with asbestos fibers. Flooding and winds from a storm can also damage building materials like drywall, insulation, siding, and roofing. While water keeps fibers down, once things dry, the leftover debris could be contaminated with asbestos. Earthquakes and tornadoes may disturb asbestos by damaging buildings. Tornadoes in particular can carry fibers long distances, scattering them as they travel.
Cleanup efforts can also cause asbestos exposure. Damaged buildings may be demolished, releasing asbestos fibers into the surrounding area. When there is scattered debris after a disaster, burning is a common cleanup strategy. However, this practice also produces toxic smoke and ash laden with asbestos.
Know Where Asbestos is before Disaster Strikes
Before a disaster strikes, preparation can help keep families safe. Every family should have an emergency plan, routes for evacuation, and emergency kits ready. In order to protect your family from asbestos, you must know its location and how likely it is to cause a contamination problem. For example, if your family lives near an industrial plant, a natural disaster could cause a release of not just asbestos, but other toxic materials as well. Have a plan for quick evacuation to avoid being harmed by these toxins.
It is also important to know if there is asbestos in your home. Older materials in your home may be safe under normal circumstances. However, these materials could be damaged during a disaster, increasing the risk of harmful exposure. Know where asbestos is and take steps to have it professionally abated or thoroughly secured. Knowing where there is asbestos in your home will also help you if your house is damaged. For example, you will know immediately if your asbestos pipe insulation has been damaged and whether it poses a risk to your family or others.
Preventing Asbestos Exposure after a Disaster
In the event your home is destroyed or nearby buildings damaged leaving debris on your property, experts advise that you leave it alone. This is especially important if you suspect that it may be contaminated with asbestos. If you aren’t sure, the safest thing to do is allow professionals trained to work with asbestos to assess it and clean it up if asbestos is found.
If you can see there are asbestos-containing materials on your property or damaged in your home, report it to your local environmental and public health agency or solid waste management. These agencies can instruct you on how to proceed. Leave the area and avoid taking anything that is part of the damaged home. This includes clothing that may have been contaminated with asbestos.
Also, be aware of laws and regulations in your state. In many places, it is legal to clean up asbestos as a homeowner, although it is strongly discouraged. If you attempt to clean up asbestos, wear proper safety gear and use a respirator designed to protect you from asbestos fibers. Wet materials that contain asbestos to keep fibers out of the air. Also, be sure to dispose of all asbestos materials according to state or local regulations.
Natural disasters cause devastating damage to homes, buildings, and families. To add to the terrible situation, asbestos could pose another threat to your family’s safety. It is always better to be safe than sorry with asbestos since there is no known safe level of exposure. If you encounter debris after a disaster that may contain asbestos, treat it as dangerous. Contact the appropriate authorities and let experts handle the cleanup. Meanwhile, make sure you and your family have a safe place to stay in an uncontaminated area.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.