Asbestos & Disaster Relief Precautions

By Alison Grimes, MAA Center

2017 has proven to be an unfortunate memorable year of natural disasters.  Across the globe, countries including Afghanistan, China, Colombia, The Democratic Republic of the Congo Mexico, Peru, Sierra Leone, South Asia, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and more, have all suffered heartache and destruction as a result of natural disasters.

The United States even experienced the hardship of more than 50 separate weather, climate and flood disasters, above the 10-year average of 45 disasters.  With hundreds and thousands of lives affected, fast action and relief saves lives. However, although quick relief is important, safety and health should not be taken for granted.

Aerial view of flood damage from Hurricane Harvey (Photo Credit: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle)

Disaster Relief Precautions

Following a natural disaster, first responders, insurance adjusters, and contractors are called upon to re-build or repair damage in the home or workplace.  To ensure safety with relief and reconstruction, the following precautions and best practices will ensure good health and well-being, long after a natural disaster.

Asbestos

While managing flood recovery and other natural disaster reconstruction, asbestos is not often thought of.  Although entirely natural, asbestos is very harmful to health, leading to cancer such as mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer and more.  There is no safe level of asbestos exposure and once asbestos fibers are consumed by way of inhalation or ingestion, health concerns can develop anywhere between 10-50 years later.  Therefore, it is important to consider the age of a structure before performing a repair.

Flood Damage Asbestos Abatement (Photo Credit: Patriot Abatement Services)

Asbestos use was widespread during the early 1930s with heightened use during the mid to late 1970s throughout the 1980s.  Its fire-resistant properties, abundance and malleability made it a popular additive in many products used in construction such as tiling, insulation, cements, caulking, heating ducts, roofing, siding, drywall and more.  When such products or materials that contain asbestos are properly encapsulated or enclosed, they will not pose harm to health, however in the case of natural disasters and water damage, the risks of being exposed to asbestos increase as a result.

 Mold

Natural disaster relief zones are breeding grounds for mold, which can begin to develop in as little as 48 hours.  Similar to asbestos, mold is often forgotten about during repairs and disaster relief.  When mold forms, spores enter the air and are easily inhaled, causing skin, eye and nasal passage irritation, wheezing and respiratory health concerns.  Considering the harm associated with mold exposure, it is essential to first dry any wet, humid or damp areas to prevent mold growth.  Additionally, any existing mold should be remediated by a specialist to ensure that all mold spores are eradicated. Control and prevent mold growth by limiting humidity levels, fixing leaky roofs, windows and pipes, cleaning and drying wet areas, and ensuring proper shower, laundry and cooking area ventilation.

 Awareness and training are two essential steps to ensure successful and safe, disaster relief.  However, asbestos and mold are only two concerns to be mindful of,  as lead, silica, PCBs, particulate matter and other hazardous building materials pose great harm to health as well.  Moreover, first responders and all others called upon during disaster relief, must prioritize self-care techniques to prevent burnout and secondary traumatic stress.

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About the Author

Alison Grimes is a Health Advocate at the Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Centre (MAA Center).  The MAA Center is an independent group working to help mesothelioma patients, caregivers, advocates, and others looking to learn more about the disease.