The Basics of Post-Sandy Asbestos Exposure

Government agencies are taking environmental hazards seriously.

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Queens; November 10, 2012 (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The day after Sandy hit the East Coast, thousands of volunteers and locals had already rallied, many to work (often ad hoc) on cleanup efforts of damaged buildings. "It's analogous to what happened at the Trade Center," says Raja Flores, MD, chief of Thoracic Surgery at The Mount Sinai Medical Center, where he and his colleagues have for years been tracking some 30,000 9/11 relief workers. "You've got all these innocent people trying to help, and they're subjecting themselves to asbestos, a known carcinogen."

Asbestos is indeed toxic; inhaling it raises your risk of developing a variety of lung diseases, among them lung cancer and mesothelioma. Nationwide, as many as 35 million homes, schools, and businesses may be contaminated with asbestos vermiculite alone, according to one Environmental Protection Agency report. (That asbestos ban you've heard about? It was largely overturned in 1991.)

Government agencies are taking the hazard seriously. Since the storm, the United States Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has tasked 60 ground personnel with the job of teaching workers and residents how to protect themselves against what it terms major environmental toxins, among them asbestos, according to a department of labor spokesperson.

Even so, in some cases word has been slow to get out. "The information isn't always there yet," says Jon Rose, whose nonprofit Waves for Water 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." 

We've pieced together a breakdown of what's in play.

Yes, asbestos is in some of that wreckage.

Asbestos has a long, weird history. The shorthand is that if you're clearing away old housing debris, you could be at risk. "Most homes and public buildings constructed before the mid 70's are likely to contain asbestos to varying degrees, mainly in insulation and floor tiles. As such, we shouldn't be surprised that we find asbestos-containing materials among the damaged homes and debris," says Tom Hei, PhD, a professor of Environmental Health Sciences and associate director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center.

How that translates is difficult to asses. Most asbestos exposure happens through inhalation. When it's wet, as much was immediately following the storm, it can be relatively safe. However, some asbestos was presumably also burning. "There were multiple and prolonged fires," says Flores. "This means that even in those early days asbestos was likely sent out into the air."

Don't just be digging around in there.

When asbestos stays where it's supposed to be (inside your walls or pipes or roof shingles, for example) it's believed to be quite safe. The danger arises when it's disturbed, a catch term for when it's been jostled such that its tiny, sharp fibers become dislodged and float into the air. From there, they can enter a person's lungs and become trapped, possibly leading first to internal scarring and inflammation, later to a variety of diseases. "It's become clear that there is a close association between certain malignancies of the lung and asbestos exposure," says Pierre Theodore. MD, an associate professor of surgery and chair in Thoracic Oncology at the University of California, San Francisco. "Inspection, careful monitoring and professional hazardous material management of asbestos containing material remain cornerstones in prevention of disease."

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Sara Reistad-Long is a journalist based in New York City. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and O, the Oprah Magazine.

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