Protecting against Asbestos Exposure in a Natural Disaster
No matter where you live, a natural disaster can happen. Location only determines the possible type, but any kind of natural disaster is possible and often will come with little or no warning. A flood, earthquake, hurricane, tornado, or a landslide can be equally devastating, destroying homes, businesses, and everything a family owns.
To add to the destruction nature of these events is the possibility that the damage to buildings causes the release of harmful and toxic substances contaminating the air, water, and soil in the area. Asbestos is one substance that is present in many older homes and buildings that can be released during a natural disaster. It is important to be prepared for these events and the possibility that your family will be put at risk of asbestos exposure and to 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 throughout many homes and other types of buildings prior to the 1970s. It is not harmful when it is contained, but when disturbed asbestos can break apart, causing the release of some of the tiny fibers of which it is made. These little needle-like fibers are dangerous because they can contaminate air, water, and soil leading to inhalation and ingestion.
When the fibers enter the body they stick in tissues, cause damage, and in some people trigger the start of serious disease. Why some people don’t get sick after exposure isn’t understood, but for those who do get sick, the illnesses are progressive and terminal: mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. 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 put restrictions on the use of asbestos but before that time 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 products that went into home and commercial building construction.
While most buildings constructed after the late 1970s were not made with asbestos, there are still many older buildings that contain the mineral. Industrial buildings may also have a lot of asbestos. Facilities like factories, oil refineries, chemical plants, power plants, and metal refineries, among many others, often have asbestos in the buildings, the machinery and equipment used in the buildings, and in any heat generating equipment like boilers and furnaces. Any of the asbestos in older homes and in industrial buildings has the potential to cause serious contamination during a natural disaster.
How Natural Disasters Cause Asbestos Contamination
All types of natural disasters can cause complete chaos, and among the many ways in which they cause harm 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 determined to be before a disaster, it may become damaged and scatter fibers into the air or water.
Although it resists heat and fire, asbestos can become exposed during a fire when the materials around it are burned away. The smoke from a fire and the ashes left behind may be contaminated with asbestos fibers. Flooding and winds from a storm can damage the materials in a building, like drywall, insulation, siding, and roofing, and cause pieces of asbestos to break away. While water will keep fibers down, once things dry out, the debris left over is likely to contain asbestos fibers that can become airborne and that may also contaminate soil. Earthquakes and tornadoes may disturb asbestos by damaging buildings, and tornadoes in particular can carry the fibers far and wide.
Natural disasters can also lead to asbestos exposure through cleanup efforts after the fact. Damaged buildings may get demolished, which can disturb and release asbestos fibers. When there is a lot of scattered debris after a disaster, burning it may a strategy used for cleaning up, but this can also produce toxic smoke and ash laden with asbestos fibers.
Know Where Asbestos is before Disaster Strikes
Before a disaster strikes, preparation can help keep families safe. This means having an emergency plan, evacuation routes, and emergency kits ready to go. To protect against asbestos, preparation also means knowing where it is and how likely it is to cause a contamination problem. For instance, if your family lives near an industrial plant, there is a good chance that a natural disaster in the area could cause a release of not just asbestos, but a lot of other toxic materials. Have a plan for getting away quickly to avoid being harmed by these toxins.
It is also important to know if there is asbestos in your home. You may have asbestos in older materials that are well maintained and considered safe under normal circumstances, but this can be damaged during a disaster. Know where asbestos is, if you have it, and take steps to either have it professionally abated or thoroughly secured. Knowing where it is in your home will also help you if your house does suffer damage. You’ll be able to tell right away if your asbestos pipe insulation has been damaged, for instance, and it will pose a risk to your family.
Preventing Asbestos Exposure after a Disaster
In the event that your home has been destroyed or nearby buildings have been damaged and left debris on your property, experts advise that you leave it alone if you suspect that it may be contaminated with asbestos. If you aren’t sure, but there is any chance there could be asbestos in the debris, the safest thing to do is to leave it alone and to let professionals trained to work with asbestos assess it and clean it up if asbestos is found.
If you can see that 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 direct you as to what to do next. Leave the area with your family and avoid taking anything that is a part of the damaged home, such as clothing, as it may have become contaminated with asbestos.
Know the laws in your state as well. In many places it is legal to clean up asbestos as a homeowner, but it is strongly discouraged. If you do try to clean up the asbestos, wear safety gear including clothing and a respirator that are designed for protecting against asbestos fibers. Wet materials that contain asbestos to keep the fibers down and prepare it to be disposed of according to state or local regulations.
Natural disasters cause devastating damage to homes, buildings, and families. To add to the terrible situation, asbestos may be present and may harm you or your family. It is always better to be safe than sorry with asbestos because there is no known safe level of exposure. If you end up with debris after a disaster that may contain asbestos, treat it as dangerous, contact the appropriate authorities, and let experts handle the cleanup, while you and your family get away to a safer, uncontaminated area.
Page edited by Dave Foster
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