The risk of asbestos exposure to disaster volunteers

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In the aftermath of 9/11, firefighters and volunteers focused on rescuing victims and clearing up after the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil. At the time, understandably nobody considered that asbestos could claim victims a decade or so later, but the amount of dust and debris that rained down that day was overwhelming.

Not only did it contain high levels of asbestos, but jet fuel, mercury, and other deadly toxins were contained within the huge plumes of dust. It settled in houses and workplaces, and was still in the atmosphere weeks later.

High numbers of cancer fatalities

It has been reported that more than 1,100 people who lived and worked where the World Trade Centres once stood in the two months following the attacks, are now cancer victims.

Significant amounts of debris remained in the air around Ground Zero for over two months, and even with face masks it would have been difficult to avoid breathing in the dust. Special clothing and equipment is needed to be fully protected, and cloth masks and handkerchiefs offer very little in that respect.

Dr Arthur Frank, an American expert witness regularly called upon to give his opinion during asbestos law suits, said:

“Even one day of exposure to airborne asbestos increases a person’s risk of mesothelioma. Disaster response volunteers can increase their risk of lung cancer if they don’t protect themselves from breathing in asbestos.”

No protection clothing or equipment for volunteers

Volunteers helping in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were also exposed to large amounts of asbestos debris, and the nature of this disaster meant that particles were disbursed even further around the area.

There were also mountains of debris, with few buildings left standing. Disaster Coordinator, Randy Bonner, described the conditions they had to work in:

“We slept in a parking lot under the stars … We could hear big, hungry dogs in the darkness so dangers from asbestos weren’t at the top of our mind at that point.”

He also said that volunteers were trained to prioritise the immediate danger that they can see. In these conditions, it’s usually going to be the case that asbestos isn’t uppermost in people’s mind.

Safeguarding volunteers from asbestos exposure

One of the Red Cross groups in south-east America focuses on providing food and shelter for survivors of disaster, and helping them to contact loved ones rather than getting involved with the rescue itself.

They say it’s preferable not to put their volunteers in danger, and tell them not to go near any debris after a hurricane or tornado.

Disaster Program Manager, David Kitchen explained:

“We don’t pull people from debris ….. we don’t want our volunteers close enough to the debris to inhale asbestos or other toxins because we don’t have breathing apparatus for them.”

The widespread use of asbestos in buildings makes it a serious health risk in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack. It’s a specific danger, and one that can claim lives several decades later, but understandably, it’s rarely considered in the immediate aftermath.