Asbestos and Natural Disasters

In the event of a natural disaster, major concerns include food and water distribution, emergency crew road access, general cleanup efforts, and the human, financial and environmental losses from the catastrophe. Emergency personnel have training for the various types of events and the potential hazards they might encounter during the aftermath. However, very few are properly trained for or aware of potential asbestos exposure resulting from such events.  

Asbestos Risks

Asbestos has been used in the construction of homes, offices, schools, theaters, and other commercial and industrial sites since the late 1800s due to its durability, fire and heat resistance. Although many construction materials contain asbestos, they remain safer when contained in an undamaged state. However, during a natural disaster where buildings and other structures are destroyed, these materials become extremely hazardous, as they break apart and release toxic fibers. Materials that may contain asbestos include:

  • Ceiling materials
  • Flooring
  • Insulation
  • Paneling
  • Pipe covering
  • Plaster
  • Plumbing
  • Roofing
  • Siding

Effects of Asbestos

Once asbestos has been disrupted, the fibers can become airborne and be inhaled or ingested. Although the fibers are extremely small, their shape and composition does not allow them to be expelled from the body easily. The fibers can collect in the pleural lining of the lungs and other organs, causing such terminal conditions as asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer.

Although there are asbestos abatement professionals with extensive training and experience in the removal of asbestos products from buildings under non-emergent situations, very few of these professionals are emergency personnel. Furthermore, the abatement process can be lengthy and meticulous. Because of the hazards of uncontained asbestos, the government has implemented specific guidelines for the handling and removal of asbestos in the case of a natural disaster. 

No Action Assurance

However, some communities are able to obtain a No Action Assurance (NAA) letter from the Environmental Protection Agency allowing for a more flexible removal procedure in the event of a natural disaster. Where the asbestos would typically be removed before the demolition of a site, the NAA letters allow for demolition of the structure before asbestos removal. While it can pose a hazard, this allows the emergency crews to quickly perform cleanup in an area that has been hit by a natural disaster through the demolition of structurally-unsound buildings. Earthquakes, fires, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes are all natural disasters that are capable of destroying buildings containing asbestos. When natural disasters occur, exposure to asbestos is added to the list of potential threats, necessitating the adoption of untraditional disposal practices.

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