As residents of Jefferson County, Alabama, recover from the recent devastation from tornadoes that swept through the area, public health officials are warning them that the danger may not be over just because the storm clouds have passed. Some of the debris from older houses, businesses and government buildings may contain hazardous substances, which can make the cleanup process much more dangerous.
One of those substances is asbestos, which was commonly used as insulation and fireproofing material during the twentieth century. For several decades, manufacturers used asbestos in roofing shingles, carpet adhesives and concrete mixes. When the asbestos stays bound in the manufacturer’s material, the danger from the microscopic is minimal. However, when the material becomes broken, splintered or burned the toxic fibers can become airborne and create a public health hazard.
Several scientific studies have shown that exposure to loose asbestos fibers can cause mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer. Workers can inhale the fibers, which pass through the lung tissue and become embedded in the pleural mesothelium, the layer of cells between the lungs and the chest cavity. The fibers alter the genetic structure of the cells in the mesothelium and turn them into malignant cancer cells. Mesothelioma patients often go years, or even decades, before showing symptoms and seldom live more than two years after receiving their diagnosis.
Federal and state public safety regulations typically require that workers charged with disposing of asbestos-containing materials wear special coveralls and breathing masks. These regulations also specify procedures for containing, transporting and disposing of debris laced with asbestos. Government health and safety officials have expressed concern that residents and cleanup crews are not taking the proper precautions to protect themselves against the hazards of asbestos exposure.
Craig Tucker, a spokesman with the Jefferson County Department of Public Health, said that the chances of finding debris that contains asbestos is “pretty high. “Asbestos is a pretty common material in older homes and businesses, so it’s going to be there.” Officials also recommend that residents contact a licensed and certified asbestos disposal contractor. These contractors can take the steps needed to preserve the environmental quality and to minimize the possibility of exposure to the toxic fibers.
Residents were encouraged to separate debris containing hazardous materials, including asbestos, from other parts of any damaged structures. Homeowners were also advised to take special care in disposing of shingles or insulation that could contain asbestos, including spraying the debris with water and placing loose material in sealed containers to prevent fibers from becoming airborne.