Tornado Aftermath: Possible Mesothelioma Risk

Environmental officials are warning that this spring’s rash of severe weather across the Midwest and South could raise the risk of asbestos exposure, mesothelioma and other lung conditions among people involved in the cleanup.

Mesothelioma is the rarest of a range of illnesses that can be triggered by exposure to asbestos fibers.  Asbestos was a common component in wall, pipe and attic insulation, roof products, floor tiles, acoustical ceiling tiles, joint compounds, drywall and even paints – especially in homes built before the 1970’s.   Insulation containing asbestos was sold until 1990.  Once asbestos is disturbed and the fibers become airborne, anyone in the vicinity is at greater risk for asbestos caused diseases like mesothelioma.

After the dangers of asbestos exposure came to light nationwide in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the EPA instituted guidelines for working with or around the material.  Those who work around asbestos and abatement professionals must now wear protective clothing and special negative airway pressure respirators to lower the risk of mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases.  But cleanup workers and volunteers in storm ravaged parts of the country may not have the same protective advantages or awareness.

In Joplin, Missouri, where thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed by a deadly tornado on May 22, 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring air quality at six sites across the debris field.  They are also providing masks and safety instructions to search and rescue crews, contractors, volunteers and residents.  “If it’s dusty enough that you can visibly see dust coming at you, you should wear the masks that have been provided as a precaution,” said Eric Nold, an on-scene coordinator for the EPA, in an Associated Press report.  So far, particulate level tests in Joplin have been normal.

But a home does not have to be damaged by a tornado to be an asbestos risk.  Thousands of homes and public buildings contain asbestos which poses little risk if left undisturbed.  But any time asbestos is disturbed, such as by a demolition, storm damage, or even a simple summer renovation project, there is the risk that mesothelioma-causing fibers can become airborne.

In these cases, the EPA warns homeowners not to attempt to remove the asbestos-containing products themselves but to call a certified abatement professional.  Although the risk of mesothelioma is statistically greater with heavier exposure to asbestos, the EPA maintains that there is ‘no safe level’ of exposure.

Today, conventional treatment for mesothelioma consists of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation or some combination of these therapies.  Mesothelioma patients can also take advantage of clinical trials and integrative therapies offered at some centers.


Miclat, Merlin, “Joplin Faces Health and Environmental Risks in Tornado Aftermath”, June 2, 2011, GreenAnswers.com

Officials: 138 Confirmed Dead After Joplin Tornado, Associated Press Report, June 2, 2011,  FOX News website.

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