Danger of Asbestos in the face of Natural Disasters
The EPA estimates that there are approximately 107,000 primary and secondary schools and 733,000 of public of commercial buildings in the United States contain a traceable amount of asbestos materials(1). In fact, most houses that were built before the 1990’s are likely to contain some asbestos. It was a building product used widely back then because it was a durable, fire resistant and a good insulator.
Now, it is banned from use. Exposed asbestos fibres are a known health risk, but not something you will see as an immediate effect. But don’t panic, if the asbestos is well-maintained and coated with paint or sealant, it is unlikely to be a problem and the toxic substances are usually tightly bound together in cement or some other materials. However, the same cannot be said after the occurrence of natural disasters. People who live in the area are at high risk of asbestos exposure.
Just like many other people, your primary concern right after the occurrence of natural disaster is probably related to the lack of human basic needs such as food, water, shelter, electricity and medical treatment. But the aftermath of natural disasters goes beyond that. Catastrophic events like earthquake, flood, hurricane, tornado or fire have the potential to bring harm to your body when exposed to asbestos over a stretched period of time.
Take fire for example. Even though asbestos is heat resistant, it cannot withstand the highly immense temperature when comes into contact with fire. Similarly, asbestos can be damaged by flood when the water invades building structures such as the exterior of the roof, gutter, or the downpipes. The problem arises when these destroyed structures start exposing the underlying asbestos that is initially covered or painted with other non-harmful materials. As soon as the debris dries out, asbestos starts to become clinically significant and can impose health threats to people. To make things worse, you should know that this asbestos is not degradable under normal condition. So once they are emitted into the air, it is very difficult to be removed unless professionals in this realm carry out safety intervention.
As a consequence, the asbestos disrupted from its dormant state will breakdown into thin fibres and becomes airborne. These fibres can then be easily inhaled into the lungs and they are extremely difficult to be cleared from the lungs due to their long and thin structures. Although our body can handle a certain amount of fibres, there comes to a point when our lungs can’t cope with too much asbestos.
This leads to the arising of severe diseases such as scarring of the lungs, also known as asbestosis(2), asbestos related lung cancer(3), or mesothelioma(4), which is the cancer of the lining of the lungs. So people who are affected by these diseases usually complain of symptoms such as coughing up blood and difficulty in breathing or swallowing. These symptoms are due to the inability of the lungs to transport oxygen into the blood stream and body cells effectively. In more severe cases, people who develop lung cancer or mesothelioma as a result of asbestos exposure will experience a sudden loss of weight and appetite due to spreading of the cancer cells.
On the 12 May 2008, a heartbreaking earthquake took place in Sichuan, China which has destroyed a staggering number of homes, schools, hospitals and governmental buildings. Not to forget the innocent lives of almost 90,000 people who were taken away.(5) According to report, many walls, ceilings and toilets in these buildings were built with materials containing asbestos. During the clean-up operation, many of the firefighters, volunteers and local residents nearby were totally unaware of the health hazard they were exposed to, as they were at the front line of the rescue team.
So if you happen to be one of the safety workers and volunteers that deals with natural disasters, you need to take the necessary precautions in handling the after-effects. To do this, you should immediately seek the guidance of public health authorities and certified asbestos experts. Then, you should minimise the risk of exposing to asbestos fibres by being safety conscious and wearing personal protective equipment which includes a mask that covers the nose and the mouth, alongside with gloves, protective eyewear, disposable clothing and boots.
On a larger perspective, in order to minimise the complications of asbestos related diseases, you should wet the materials that are suspected to contain asbestos because this can lower the spreading chance of the harmful asbestos. Apart from that, all the asbestos containing materials should also be labelled and separated from other waste products. Lastly, you need to dispose of the material in manners which are approved by experts.
You might not think of the danger and health consequences of asbestos exposure immediately in the face of natural disasters. However, it is crucial to remember that it can affect the life quality and expectancy of the people who are affected in the years to come.