Residents of North Carolina and Virginia are just beginning their cleanup efforts after Hurricane Matthew brought high winds, heavy rain and storm surges to the east coast states in October. Flooding and structural damage to houses and businesses have left many people worried about salvaging their belongings, rebuilding their residences and getting their lives back on track. However, according to news reports, some residents are also facing possible asbestos contamination and its associated health risks.
In the Waypoint at Lynnhaven apartment complex in Virginia Beach, VA, residents have been banned from returning home after crews cleaning up hurricane damage found asbestos in more than 80 apartments and townhouses, according to an Oct. 24 article in the Virginian-Pilot. Residents were told they cannot return to the units, and their leases will be terminated, as management scrambles to fully assess the issue.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asbestos was used in a variety of building construction materials for insulation and as a fire retardant. Asbestos can be found in a wide range of building materials, including roofing shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, paper products, and asbestos cement products. Although no longer used in construction, buildings built prior to 1980, more than likely, contain some asbestos-containing materials.
The EPA adds that asbestos that is in good condition, is not friable, and is left undisturbed is unlikely to present a health risk. However, risk of mesothelioma, lung cancer or other asbestos-related diseases becomes an issue when asbestos is damaged or disturbed, such as during storms and fires. The EPA reports there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.
Reuters reports that in North Carolina alone Hurricane Matthew left $1.5 billion of damage and 26 deaths in its wake. Extensive flooding left thousands of people homeless and tens of thousands more facing the daunting task of cleaning up.
ABC News Channel 12 of New Bern, NC offers the following safety tips for residents as they begin their cleanup efforts:
- Do not try to remove flood-damaged materials that may contain asbestos. Buildings built before 1975 may have asbestos insulation and tape on the heating systems. Leave any suspected asbestos in place until it can be removed by trained asbestos professionals.
- If flood water soaked sheetrock, insulation or ceiling tiles, remove the items 30 inches above the water line. Paneling may be removed and saved, but wall cavities should be drained, cleaned, checked for molds, and dried out.
- Do not burn trees, limbs and other storm debris. Smoke from outdoor burning pollutes the air and is unhealthy to breathe.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing safety gear such as work gloves, goggles and hard hats to protect yourself from injuries. In addition, the CDC notes that it is important to protect yourself with a breathing mask (respirator) if you are near dangerous materials. Dust in damaged buildings could contain substances like lead, asbestos, cement, or mold.
Airborne asbestos fibers that are released into the air can put residents at risk of developing deadly, asbestos-related illnesses. For that reason, experienced and certified contractors should be hired to carry-out any debris removal that may be necessary during rebuilding efforts.
Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, a disease that kills between 2,500 and 3,000 people in the U.S. each year. Symptoms of mesothelioma, such as shortness of breath and chest pains, may take as many as 10 to 50 years to develop. Once diagnosed mesothelioma progresses rapidly and is difficult to treat.
The only way to prevent mesothelioma is to avoid exposure to asbestos. Please take care during storm cleanup efforts.