According to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 35 million homes, schools, and businesses in the United States may be contaminated with asbestos vermiculite, and millions of others contain a host of other asbestos materials. That’s why government agencies are so concerned about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the fact that not only homeowners but also first responders could already have been exposed to the toxic material.
“It’s analogous to what happened at the Trade Center,” Raja Flores, MD, chief of Thoracic Surgery at The Mount Sinai Medical Center, said in an article in The Atlantic. Flores and his team of colleagues have been tracking the health of 30,000 Sept. 11th relief workers since shortly after the incident occurred, and they’ve seen countless diseases that can be attributed to exposure to asbestos and other hazardous materials that were contained in the debris left behind after the World Trade Center fell.
“You’ve got all these innocent people trying to help, and they’re subjecting themselves to asbestos, a known carcinogen,” Flores reiterated last week.
This time, however, government agencies are taking the threat of asbestos exposure much more seriously than they did in the early days after 9/11. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has sent out 60 ground personnel to help teach workers and residents in obliterated towns how to protect themselves from what are being classified as “major environmental toxins.” One of those toxins is asbestos, which can cause a variety of respiratory diseases including malignant mesothelioma cancer.
Some fear, however, that the word about post-Sandy hazards hasn’t gotten out there quickly enough. “The information isn’t always there yet,” noted Jon Rose, who’s with the nonprofit Waves for Water, an organization formed shortly after the storm that has been connecting existing volunteer programs to supplies and areas of needs. “It’s not an issue of neglect, but there’s such an aftermath to this. The scale and scope is just so great.”
In the meantime, OSHA, the Centers for Disease Control, and other government organizations are attempting to get the word out in other ways and are making suggestions for safe clean-up.
“Whether you’re a professional, a homeowner, business owner, or volunteer, wear a hard hat, goggles, heavy work gloves, and water-tight boots with steel toes and insoles for cleanup work,” said Christopher J. Portier, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. He also strongly suggests that anyone working among storm debris purchase a N95 respirator. In addition, anyone working in an area with asbestos dust should ideally leave their work clothes in place and then shower and put on clean clothes before interacting with others in order to avoid secondhand asbestos exposure.