Natural disasters, like floods and tornadoes, can spread asbestos and cause harmful asbestos exposure. Knowing how to protect against exposure is important wherever events may destroy older buildings containing asbestos. Residents should know where asbestos is before a disaster and leave the cleanup to trained professionals.
How Natural Disasters Cause Asbestos Exposure
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 floodwaters or destroyed by fire. No matter how safe asbestos is before a disaster, it may become damaged, scattering fibers into the air or water.
- Fires. 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. Forest fires are increasingly common and destructive. These huge fires release toxins into the air when they rip through older homes made with asbestos.
- Storms and Flooding. 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. Tornadoes can carry fibers long distances, scattering them as they travel. Hurricanes are hugely destructive and often destroy buildings and cause flooding that results in additional damage.
- Earthquakes. Earthquakes can be as destructive as storms, or even more so depending on the severity. As with storms and floods, earthquakes bring down buildings, ripping apart asbestos materials and spreading fibers far and wide.
- Natural Disaster Response. 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.
How Are People Exposed to Asbestos After a Natural Disaster?
Asbestos is a natural mineral that was used in many structures built before the 1970s. This substance is not harmful when contained. However, asbestos can break apart once disturbed, 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.
Inhalation is the most common exposure route for asbestos. Debris left over from a disaster causes the most damage in the air because people in the area can inhale the fibers without even realizing it.
When asbestos fibers enter the body, they become lodged in tissue, causing damage and severe disease. Some people exposed to asbestos will develop a progressive and terminal illness like mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis.
Asbestos Products That Can Be Dangerous in a Natural Disaster
In the 1970s, the federal government placed restrictions on asbestos use. Before these regulations were enacted, most building materials contained asbestos. Asbestos was used in several products that linger in homes and other buildings:
- Roofing materials
- Joint compound
- Fireproofing and soundproofing
- Flooring tiles
- Fireplace decorations
- Cement pipes
- Electrical panels
- Many other specialty construction products
While most buildings constructed after the late 1970s were not made with asbestos, many older buildings still contain asbestos.
Industrial buildings may also have significant amounts of asbestos. Any asbestos in older homes and industrial facilities can potentially cause serious contamination during a natural disaster.
Who Is at Risk of Asbestos Exposure After a Natural Disaster?
Anyone in the vicinity of older buildings with asbestos during and after a disaster is at risk of exposure. Some people have a greater risk, including first responders.
Firefighters, rescue workers, law enforcement officers, and other emergency response workers who arrive first on the scene have a high risk of being exposed to asbestos in the debris.
Also at risk is the next wave of workers, sometimes the residents themselves, who arrive to clean up the area when the danger of the disaster has passed.
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.
To protect your family from asbestos, you must know its location and how likely it will cause a contamination problem. For example, if your family lives near an industrial plant, a natural disaster could cause the 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.
How to Prevent Asbestos Exposure After a Disaster
Staying safe in a disaster is only the first step. It’s also important to avoid hazards in the aftermath, including asbestos.
- If your home is destroyed or nearby buildings are damaged, leave debris alone until professionals can ensure it is safe. 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 to allow professionals trained to work with asbestos to assess it and clean it up if asbestos is found.
- If you can see 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.
- It is legal to clean up asbestos as a homeowner in many places, 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.
- Be aware of laws and regulations in your state. Wet materials containing asbestos to keep fibers out of the air and dispose of all asbestos materials according to state or local regulations.
Also important is to wear an appropriate respirator if you will be participating in cleanup efforts. Look for a respirator approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). A respirator appropriate for working with asbestos should have one of the following:
- HEPA filter cartridges
- N-100 NIOSH rating
- P-100 NIOSH rating
- R-100 Niosh rating
Other protective gear, including gloves and protective suits, are also useful when dealing with an area that contains asbestos.
How to Prepare for Asbestos in Specific Types of Disasters
All natural disasters have the potential to stir up asbestos but in different ways. Understand the risks associated with the types of disasters that might occur in your area and how to manage them.
Hurricanes are hugely destructive storms. High winds, rain, storm surges, and waves all have the power to damage buildings and release asbestos. They can also move that asbestos far and wide.
You are at risk of going through a hurricane if you live on the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic coast. Hurricane season runs from June through November and is the time when you are most likely to see a major storm.
Evacuate the area in advance of a hurricane if possible. When you return, contact emergency authorities for safety information and guidance on cleanup efforts.
Wildfires and forest fires are most common in western states. Between 2013 and 2022, the average number of wildfires per year was over 61,000. These fires burned 7.2 million acres on average annually. The state most affected was Alaska.
When these fires affect inhabited areas, they destroy buildings and can release asbestos fibers. A respirator is particularly important during and after fires when many toxins are in the air.
Wildfires not only release asbestos from damaged buildings. They also have the potential to spread fibers far and wide. Even if your home wasn’t damaged in the fire, you could still be at risk of exposure from ash that blows in from other areas. Use a respirator and wet dust as you clean.
Floods are among the deadliest of all types of natural disasters. One reason for this is that you might not realize it’s coming. Also, many people discount the risks and do not leave the area in time.
It’s important to know if you are in an area prone to flooding. Floods often occur after storms but also after a hard rain, especially when it occurs after a dry period.
Leave the area if a flood is predicted. When you return, be aware of where asbestos could be and use proper precautions, including respirators, when cleaning up debris.
Earthquakes cause damage directly, by destroying buildings. They can also cause indirect damage through the destruction that occurs later to weakened buildings or through tsunamis in coastal areas. The west coast of the U.S. is most prone to earthquakes.
You should be aware of the risk of earthquakes where you live and follow all safety guidelines if you feel one. A big danger associated with earthquakes is that they are not easy to predict. Most take people by surprise.
The risk of asbestos from an earthquake comes later when you begin to clean up debris and damaged buildings. Use respirators and contact authorities to determine if it is safe to begin cleaning.
A tornado is a particularly strong storm that can cause massive destruction in a small area. Some areas are left untouched next to homes that are completely destroyed.
Be aware of tornado season and the risk of storms where you live. In the U.S., tornadoes are most common in the Midwest, the eastern Great Plains states, and the Southeast. Tornadoes occur most often from March through June. Take appropriate shelter during tornado warnings.
Even if your home is not damaged during a tornado, the winds from the storm can carry asbestos-laden debris to your area. Only begin to clean up when it is safe and use appropriate protective gear if asbestos is in your area.
National Resources for Natural Disasters
Your state should have an emergency response contact for natural disasters as well as plans to help you prepare and manage after a disaster. Federal and national resources are also useful as you try to stay safe during recovery and clean-up:
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA responds to emergencies when there are risks to the environment and human health. It also provides resources and information for staying safe around contaminated debris.
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA provides preparedness planning and information and practical and financial resources after disasters.
- American Red Cross. The American Red Cross provides disaster relief in a variety of situations. Contact the organization for immediate assistance and long-term resources.
If you encounter debris after any of type of 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.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Written by Mary Ellen Ellis
Mary Ellen Ellis has been the head writer for Mesothelioma.net since 2016. With hundreds of mesothelioma and asbestos articles to her credit, she is one of the most experienced writers on these topics. Her degrees and background in science and education help her explain complicated medical topics for a wider audience. Mary Ellen takes pride in providing her readers with the critical information they need following a diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness.
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.