Residents and Workers Urged to Use Caution in Tornado Cleanup
Greensburg, Kansas - After surviving one of the worst tornados in recorded history, residents and volunteers are dealing with further problems posed by possible asbestos contamination.
At its peak the tornado that struck on May 4th, 2007 measured nearly 2 miles wide and leveled nearly every building in the town of just over 1,400 people. It was the first EF5 tornado ever recorded since the Fujita system was revised earlier this year and the first 5th level tornado since 1999.
As residents and clean up crews begin going through debris piles, many are concerned that asbestos may be present and that people are needlessly exposing themselves to greater danger.
When asbestos is damaged or disturbed it releases fibers that when inhaled can cause serious health problems down the road given sufficient exposure. Residents and volunteers going through debris piles may be disturbing asbestos fibers that have since collected.
In the days following the tornado, asbestos contractors tested the remnants of commercial buildings and schools determining that 4 including the high school contained asbestos. Those areas have since been cordoned off and warning signs have been posted.
Tests of debris from homes are not being performed as the EPA does not have the ability to order testing of private residences. The possibility of asbestos contamination exists as the majority of Greensburg homes were built before 1980 when asbestos was being phased out in construction use.
The EPA has taken 8 air samples thus far and has yet to get a sample testing positive for asbestos. If a sample does come back positive then the EPA can initiate further testing for asbestos including debris piles but until that happens they are legally unable to proceed any further.
Critics note that testing began nearly 2 weeks after the disaster and that asbestos may have been present in the air in the days following the disaster.
In an effort to educate people on the exposure risks the Kiowa County Health Department issued a warning that dust in Greensburg may contain asbestos. They began issuing dust masks and advising residents and volunteers to wear protective clothing when going through debris.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment also advised residents to exercise care when going through debris and that if they suspect the presence of asbestos to consider hiring a private contractor to clean up for them.