According to numerous reports, more than 130 people have died from a massive tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, last month. A report from the Missouri Department of Public Safety estimates than more than 8000 dwellings and 500 commercial property sites were either damaged or destroyed in the storm. With so much property damage, especially among the city’s older structures, authorities are now concerned about potential asbestos contamination.
During the last century, construction crews used asbestos-laced materials for a wide range of applications. Asbestos fibers were laced into construction materials ranging from roofing shingles to wall insulation to floor tile adhesives. The tough, lightweight material made for a strong bonding agent and the mineral fibers are highly resistant to temperature changes. However, health concerns surrounding the mineral led to a phase-out on its use.
Scientists have tied exposure to asbestos to a rare form of cancer, known as mesothelioma. Unprotected workers exposed to asbestos can inhale the microscopic, glass-like fibers. The fibers then work their way through the lung tissue and embed themselves into the pleural mesothelium, a wall of tissue around the chest cavity. The fibers then mutate the cells and give rise to malignant mesothelioma. Although the disease can lie dormant for decades, when it is eventually diagnosed, patients seldom survive for more than two years.
Several groups of state and federal authorities are taking precautions to insure that asbestos contamination in the storm-damaged areas is kept to a minimum. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has provided cleanup crews with safety gear and specific instructions on how to handle asbestos-laced storm debris. The agency is also monitoring air quality at six sites around the devastated city to determine contamination levels for asbestos and other toxic materials in the debris, as well as mobile measuring stations at debris collection sites.
The Missouri National Guard, along with the Army National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are also supervising efforts to clear the debris while protecting workers from asbestos exposure. The difficult task requires balancing the speed and efficiency of the cleanup efforts with exercising the proper safety precautions. The cleanup crews must protect themselves asbestos fibers, especially with the use of everything from brooms to bulldozers that can stir up large quantities of potentially toxic dust particles.
Eric Nold, an EPA environmental quality control coordinator at the Joplin site, said that workers should wear safety masks and take the necessary precautions around any visible dust cloud. “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,” Nold said to cleanup workers.
Chris Whitley, an EPA spokesman, said that the recovery process for the town of 50,000 could take many months, or even years. He estimated that the volume of debris to be recovered from the town could be more than that from the attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City on 11 September 2001.