Guide to Asbestos and Natural Disasters
Floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and wildfires can cause incalculable damage in all the expected ways. However, when these and other natural disasters damage materials which contain asbestos, emergency responders and area residents can be at risk of exposure.
In What Ways is Asbestos a Danger During Post-Disaster Cleanup?
Asbestos was common in homes before the 1980s. It was found in numerous components throughout the houses, and though generally safe undisturbed, disasters can break and tear into the fibers, thus making them airborne and a high risk for exposure and inhalation.
Greater exposure to these toxic minerals increases the risk of asbestos-related diseases like asbestosis and deadly mesothelioma. Exposure to airborne asbestos after a disaster for unprotected individuals can result in breathing in these fibers, the effects of which might take years and even decades to surface.
It isn’t just in the aftermath — during the cleanup in the relative calm in the wake of a natural disaster — that asbestos can pose a risk. The moment that any of these disasters occurs, asbestos can be released into the environment. Tornadoes, for example, can disperse the fibers into the air and across a wide span, potentially affecting those not seemingly otherwise affected directly by the tornado.
The insidious nature of asbestos exposure is that, unlike overt and immediate dangers such as gas lines breaking and the risk of electric shock, asbestos fibers in the air are unseen and microscopic and, as such, may leave people unaware that they need protection from it and may not know for years to come of their exposure to it.
When planning for dealing with weather-related disasters, knowledge of safety precautions regarding asbestos exposure and cleanup can not only save lives, but prevent diminished quality of life and avoid adverse health conditions later on.
Who May Be at Risk of Disaster-Related Exposure to Asbestos?
Emergency responders, cleanup volunteers, and those in and around the area during the disaster are at an increased risk due to the disturbed fibers more likely to be exposed in the early stages of a post-disaster scene. Workers dealing with repeated or prolonged cleanup where asbestos is present are at increased risk of exposure and long-term effects.
Occupations That Put First Responders at Greater Risk
- Cleanup crews, such as volunteers, contractors, and local agencies
- Emergency responders, including American Red Cross and FEMA
- Law enforcement
- Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and other military personnel
Property damage can cause homeowners to be at greater risk, especially during cleanup, making it imperative that proper precautions are used during this time.
Older buildings may contain numerous products which contain asbestos, especially because these homes, schools, churches, and apartments may have been built before regulations and a decreased use in asbestos products in favor of alternatives in pipes, insulation, and roofing. Though generally safe when these products (and thus, the asbestos fibers) are intact. However, earthquakes, tornadoes, fires, floods, and even strong winds can disturb these products, resulting in potential exposure.
As disturbing products during cleanup that contain asbestos increasing the likelihood of producing airborne fibers, experts suggest you leave them for expert removal.
Household Components Most Likely to Contain Asbestos
- Appliance parts
- Ceiling materials
- Cement board
- Cooling systems
- Electric panels
- Electrical insulation
- Fireplace decor
- Gardening components
- Soil retention enhancers containing vermiculite
- Heating systems
- Pipe insulators
- Roof materials
- Taping materials
Preventing Post-Disaster Exposure to Asbestos
Risks for asbestos exposure in the wake of a natural disaster differ depending on the event. Whereas floods might disperse asbestos contaminants into the local, neighborhood water supplies, tornadic winds could whip asbestos fibers into the air over a span of miles.
Firefighters are at increased risk in dealing with fires and hurricanes increase exposure through particles in the air as well as via water supplies due to associated flooding and tornadoes.
Means to Decrease Risk of Exposure During Cleanup
- Wearing protective equipment like disposable coveralls and boots as well as gloves during cleanup can decrease direct risk as well as that posed by transference. Consider wearing clothes even beneath this protection that can be disposed of as well.
- High-grade respirators with high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters rated for protecting against fine, microscopic particles like asbestos are necessary. Simple cloth coverings and inexpensive masks such as those adequate for basic woodworking or other masks rated for large particulate matter will offer insufficient protection. Filter should be changed regularly and more often with greater exposure.
- Changing HEPA filters in vacuums used in cleanup can release dust into the air, and caution should be taken where and how the filters are changed.
- Sealing the area with plastic sheets and duct tape before commencing work will help to reduce dust issues.
- Keeping asbestos particles wet will result in less of its dust getting into the air.
- Caution should be taken to only disturb asbestos-containing components necessary for the task at hand in order to reduce the potential for the fibrous dust to get into the air.
- All debris should be double-bagged and suspected asbestos materials should be marked clearly on these bags.
- Protective coverings, including clothes, should be carefully removed and disposed of. Washing any clothing exposed to asbestos fibers can potentially expose you and/or family members regardless of what care was taken during the cleanup itself.
- Showering afterwards should be thorough to remove all fibers from the body, including hair. Indoor fans as well as central air at home should be avoided while prior to and in preparation of a post-cleanup shower as air flow may lift the dust into the air.
Tips for Making a Family Plan for Natural Disaster Emergencies
The needs of patients with cancer must be considered when crafting an emergency plan for a natural disaster, including the patient’s oncologist in the conversation can help in reducing any disruptions in treatments.
Things to Include in an Emergency Plan
- Vital contact information in an easily accessible place
- This list should include physicians, veterinarians, police and fire departments, and utilities as well as contacts for family, friends, neighbors, etc.
- Keep in mind that in moments of high stress, it can be easy to forget things such as known phone numbers and e-mails, including one’s own
- Safe and efficient routes of exit
- Communication protocols for your family
- Easily accessible and memorable place(s) for emergency supplies, including masks, goggles, and gloves
- How pets will be cared for
- Plans for places to take shelter, such as with family or a local YMCA shelter
Family members should have both physical and online copies of the emergency plan. Plans can be shared with outside family and friends (including neighbors) in the event that they need to be called upon for assistance.
Things to look for in a NIOSH-Approved Respirator
As asbestos fibers are microscopic, it’s important that your respirator is rated at 100, with N-100 and P-100 respirators able to protect against a minimum of 99.7% of particles in the air. The P-100 respirators are also able to better handle oily particulates.
These masks can be found both at online and at physical locations for home improvement stores. Whereas typical disposable masks are inexpensive, these high-rating respirators can be as much as $50, if not more.
Be Sure Your Respirator Has the Following
- A model or part number
- A TC-approval number, as all respirators manufactured since September 2008 must contain one
- A manufacturer’s name
- A NIOSH (The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) logo
- A filter rating of either N-100 or P-100
Other Gear to be Used During a Disaster/Asbestos Cleanup
- Safety goggles
- Protective boots
- (Preferably) protective clothing, including coveralls
- A helmet to help keep asbestos fibers from hair
Asbestos Exposure and Wildfires
Buildings built prior to 1980 (which are more likely to contain asbestos materials) increase the risk of exposure during and after a wildfire. When the products are on fire, cancer-causing fibers can be released into the air and be carried aloft by smoke.
A report from the National Interagency Fire Center showed that, in the last decade, an average of 67,000 wildfires occurred every year, resulting in an average annual of 7 million acres burned.
Areas Most Affected by Wildfires in the United States
Though more fires occur in the eastern and central states, those in the west see larger fires that burn more acres.
States Most Affected by Wildfires in 2019 (in order of acres burned)
- Alaska (2,498,159)
- Arizona (384,942)
- Idaho (284,0126)
- California (259,148)
- Texas (215,493)
- Washington (169,742)
- Florida (122,500)
- Utah (92,380)
- Nevada (82,282)
- New Mexico (79,887)
Tips for Preventing Asbestos Exposure from Wildfires
Though FEMA recommends N-95 masks for the prevention of airborne particles during and after disasters, this rating isn’t sufficient for asbestos fibers, which are finer (and arguably more dangerous) than most.
Not only is asbestos a concern for you if your house contains parts made with the mineral, but if nearby houses are (and any built before 1980 are more likely to have been), then you and your family are also at risk as ash, soot, and smoke laden with asbestos can be carried for miles.
Tips for Protecting Against Exposure During a Wildfire
- Unless instructed to do otherwise, stay in a place within your house where levels of smoke are low.
- Have room in mind that can be shut against outside air and whose doors and windows can be closed firmly.
- Use an air cleaner/purifier that you keep at the ready to reduce pollutants.
- Keep N-11 or P-100 respirators in your emergency kits(s), with masks for each family member.
- Always wear your N-100 or P-100 respirators with NIOSH approval.
- Unless necessary, leave damaged drywall, insulation, flooring, and other construction materials. Components and debris that cannot be moved should be sealed with duct tape and plastic sheets.
- Using a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filtered vacuum, damp rags, or wet wipes to carefully clean immovable items to keep asbestos dust from getting into the air.
- Use a HEPA vacuum to clean ash, soot, and dust, remembering to take care if the need to replace the filter arises.
- Secure all trash in double bags.
- Make sure all materials suspected of containing asbestos are wet down before handling, even with gloves, as it is easy for the fine particulates to become airborne.
- Whenever possible, seek out and use an asbestos abatement company, as they are trained to safely tackle and decontaminate buildings.
Wildfire Safety Resources
- CDC list of N-100 respirators (NIOSH-approved) useful in preventing exposure to asbestos.
- The non-profit organization, Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, has a site which has state-specific guides for retrofitting as well as tips for protecting houses and buildings against wildfires. The organization is run by insurers and reinsurers.
- The National Wildfire Coordinating group’s InciWeb keeps an interactive map, which shows both planned/controlled burns as well as wildfires, as well as earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters.
- The National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates national response for wildfires and other disasters, is an up-to-date resource of information and safety programs.
Asbestos Exposure and Hurricanes
Hurricanes can destroy by way of heavy rains, storm surges, and strong winds. Flash floods, caused by heavy rainfall, along with storm surges, can cause coastal flooding and can damage houses, complexes, and other buildings, while strong winds can result in tornadoes.
With the many forms of destruction left in a hurricane’s wake, hazardous materials with asbestos material can be left behind in homes, the air, and waterways, exposing homeowners, renters, and emergency responders. The level of destruction and hazardous waste can swiftly overwhelm communities.
Preventing Post-Hurricane Asbestos Exposure
First and foremost, wearing proper protective gear is paramount when cleaning up and restoring after a hurricane. Boots, gloves, disposable coveralls, a helmet, and a NIOSH-approved N-100 or P-100 respirator are vital to safety and helping to protect against asbestos exposure.
- A NIOSH-approved mask should be worn at all times.
- The asbestos-abatement standard is for any potentially asbestos-containing debris to be wet down, often with amended water. Amended water is water which has been blended with chemicals such as dish soap. ACM (asbestos-containing materials) should be wet down until it can handle no more water.
- A HEPA-filtered vacuum should be used to clean up fine particulate matter.
- Materials should double-bagged, but only while wet. For fibers that are easily crumbled when dry, they should be double-bagged (while wet) in a leakproof container, and properly labeled before taking to a landfill that has been confirmed to accept asbestos materials.
Hurricane Safety Resources
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane and Central live-tracks Atlantic, Eastern North Pacific, and Central Pacific hurricanes, tropical storms, and tropical depressions
- The FEMA Individual Assistance page lists shelter options and nearby Disaster Recovery Centers.
- Hurricane survival and preparation tips can be found on FEMA’s Ready.gov Hurricane page.
- Florida Division of Emergency Management has a customizable plan for your business or family.
- The North Carolina Department of Public Safety has information for dealing with a hurricane prior-to, during, and afterwards.
Preventing Exposure from Asbestos as a Result of Other Disasters
Asbestos exposure often follows wildfire and hurricane damage, but these aren’t the only natural disasters open the way for exposure to this substance. Tornado, earthquake, and flood damage can also result in asbestos exposure. All of these act of nature have the potential for asbestos exposure mainly due to older houses and other buildings still comprised of components which contain the fibers.
Flood waters can damage drywall, ceilings, and floors — all of which could contain asbestos. Damaged products can release the exposed fibers after the material has dried.
Flooding and Asbestos in Nature
In Washington’s North Cascades, a landslide released asbestos into the Swift River which, when it flooded, left yards and homes with asbestos deposits.
Post-Flood Cleanup and Demolition
When homes likely to contain asbestos are sufficiently damaged, those trained in National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) protocols should handle the demolition with a certified abatement supervisor overseeing and offering guidance from a distance if not on site.
Workers on the demolition should be outfitted with properly rated protective equipment, including the appropriate respirators, and should ensure that the structure is wet and that any still-standing walls are wrapped to protect against further asbestos contamination.
Flood Planning and Victim Resources
- The CDC has an Emergency Water Supply Planning Guide, which includes tips for preparation as well as emergency responder help.
- This U.S. Geological site has interactive maps and tracking for national and local floods as well as alerts for local flooding.
- The American Red Cross has a flood safety checklist page.
Known for causing destruction to structures, tornadoes can also release asbestos into the environment as well as cause potential exposure to those picking up the pieces after the disaster.
- Always wear a NIOSH-approved N-100 or P-100 respirator at cleanup sites.
- Let your state’s Environmental Protection Agency know if you suspect that a tornado has damaged any building or buildings you believe contain asbestos material.
- Make sure all debris believed to contain asbestos is soaked in water mixed with surfactant chemicals to reduce the likelihood of asbestos becoming airborne.
Tornado Response and Safety Resources
- The National Weather Service has a page that explains tornado watches and warnings as well as links to ongoing local alerts.
- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a Tornado Preparedness and Response page with tips, checklists, and resources.
Earthquakes are shaking that occurs when there’s a release of energy from seismic waves. Damage to building can result from the shaking itself and tsunamis can also be triggered, which can cause damage in their own right.
In the United States, most earthquakes happen on the West Coast, especially in California, but earthquakes can hit anywhere in the States.
Risks of Earthquake Cleanup Asbestos Exposure
Of those assisting with the cleanup, many are likely to be locals, volunteers, and temp labor, which means that there’s less of a likelihood of asbestos awareness, including its proper handling and disposal — if they are even aware of its existence or danger. These workers are likely to be lacking in the necessary protective gear or know how to clean up or dispose of the toxic substance.
After such cleanups, asbestos may be collected and/or discarded in such a manner, locally, that results in nearby residents having an increased risk of exposure.
Preparedness plans that you and your family are familiar with can help to save lives. Most important is that you have an emergency response kit and protective gear including N-100 or P-100 for all household members
Without certainty on how to properly clean up after a disaster in a house where asbestos may be present, it’s better to not tackle it yourself. Whenever possible, allow experts to handle demolition, cleanup, and disposal for your own safety as well as that of your family.
Using all of the recommended gear isn’t enough if, after a cleanup, the fibers are brought into your house, where they can get into the air and swallowed or inhaled.
Emergency Contacts and Resources
202-646-2500 for general information and assistance
800-621-3363 for disaster survivors
American Red Cross
Find Your Local Chapter
Environmental Protection Agency