When a disaster such as a hurricane, fire, earthquake or act of terrorism occurs, the fear of asbestos exposure is not the first thing that comes to mind – but it should be high on the list of concerns. Any building or piece of infrastructure put in place prior to the 1980s is likely to have been fabricated using asbestos. Though this component may have been safe while undisturbed or hidden behind drywall, once asbestos has been damaged by wind, rain, fire or force it becomes friable and its fibers can become airborne. It is in this form that they become a danger to human health, and extreme caution needs to be exercised during the process of demolition and cleanup.

Examples of Disasters that Have Spread Asbestos

Any time that a structure constructed using asbestos or asbestos insulation is knocked down or damaged, the risk of asbestos fibers being released is cause for great concern. Whether as a result of a weather event, an earthquake, or even a terrorist attack such as those that impacted the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, an increased concentration of asbestos in the air affects those in the community, and especially the first responders tasked with rescue operations and the construction workers tasked with removing damaged materials.

Natural disasters known to have spread asbestos fibers into the air and groundwater include:

  • Hurricane Katrina
  • Alabama and Missouri tornados
  • California fires
  • Hurricane Sandy

Asbestos-Contaminated Materials That Can Be Damaged During Disaster

Asbestos was an integral part of construction prior to the U.S. Environmental Protection revealing its dangers in the mid-1970s. When equipment, buildings or infrastructure containing asbestos is damaged, there is a need for care. Items that may contain asbestos include:

  • Roofing materials
  • Insulation
  • Cement board
  • Appliance insulation
  • Electrical panels and insulation
  • Flooring and ceiling tiles
  • Heating and cooling systems
  • Paint
  • Drywall
  • Concrete

Precautions to be Taken If Removing Asbestos-Contaminated Material

When a disaster occurs, it is a natural first reaction to want to secure your property and begin cleaning up as soon as possible. In most cases, emergency management professionals advise using professional help where possible. To protect yourself and minimize your exposure, wear a respirator that is NIOSH-approved: a paper mask or handkerchief will not protect you against asbestos fibers. If you believe that you may come into contact with asbestos, wear protective clothing. Store all debris that is being removed in thick bags and double them. Be sure to wash thoroughly after coming into contact with any dust or asbestos fibers.

Whether you are an emergency management professional, a member of the media, an educator or a homeowner, it is important that you are aware of the precautions and proper steps surrounding asbestos abatement and how to handle exposed asbestos following a disaster. This resource guide will provide you with invaluable information for protecting yourself and the impacted community.