As volunteers from across the country continue to head to tornado-ravaged Oklahoma for the cleanup effort, they are being warned about a potentially serious threat to their own health. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says damage to homes and buildings in Moore, Oklahoma has exposed a host of toxins including asbestos, the primary cause of malignant mesothelioma.
Although asbestos has been phased out of most new construction materials, it can still be found in the insulation, caulk and joint compound, floor and ceiling tiles, and shingles of many older homes and buildings. According to the Huffington Post, many of the houses destroyed in Moore had been built in the 1960s and 1970s when asbestos use in construction was at its peak. While the asbestos may not have posed a threat when the buildings were intact, it can now become a mesothelioma risk for anyone who inadvertently comes in contact with it.
Chris Whitley of the EPA, who has worked at the scene of dozens of tornadoes, told the Huffington Post that the situation in Moore is “eerily familiar” and warned that the asbestos and mesothelioma threat may not be immediately obvious. Because asbestos was a part of so many types of building products, it is not always easy to recognize. To be safe, volunteers and others involved in the clean-up are advised to steer clear of dusty area.
“We’ve seen this is Joplin and after Hurricane Sandy,” agrees Linda Reinstein, president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, in the same article. “After natural disasters, asbestos is a prevalent toxin.”
Asbestos is the cause of mesothelioma, an aggressive malignancy that spreads across the membranes around internal organs. It can show up even decades after initial exposure and is highly resistant to standard cancer therapies. To protect workers from the threat of mesothelioma, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has strict requirements for protective gear, including negative pressure respirators that must be worn in the presence of asbestos.
The EPA also has rules for the handling and disposal of asbestos in order to minimize the risk of mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases. One concern in Moore is that overeager volunteers may inadvertently put themselves and others at risk for mesothelioma by handling or disturbing asbestos. To help protect those involved in the cleanup, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality has posted debris management guidelines on its website.
Peeples, Lynne, “Oklahoma Tornado health Risks May Lie in the Rubble”, May 22, 2013, The Huffington Post.
May 2013 Tornado Information, OK Department of Environmental Quality.