Asbestos Risk in Disaster Emergency Response
Posted on 3rd May 2022 at 12:05
In last few decades there has been a tenfold increase in natural disasters worldwide. Many of these natural disasters cause extensive damage to buildings and infrastructure which undoubtedly leads to large amounts of asbestos fibre being released creating a ‘hidden’ risk to first responders, emergency services and volunteers alike.
It is estimated that asbestos diseases are responsible for more than 100,000 deaths worldwide each year. In many developed countries, asbestos has been banned for some years but there is a misconception that it is banned worldwide. In reality asbestos is still mined and used widely in many developing lands, particularly in Asia.
Asbestos is a mineral used extensively in building materials among other things. It was often used to strengthen materials, but it is also used to prevent fire or for heat insulation. However, when asbestos is damaged or disturbed it easily releases microscopic fibres, which when inhaled can cause lung disease and cancers, such as lung cancer and mesothelioma. Asbestos is the leading cause of work-related deaths in the world.
In last few decades there has been, according to some reports, a tenfold increase in natural disasters worldwide. Many of these natural disasters, such as floods, storms and earthquakes as well as man-made disasters resulting from the use of missiles and artillery in warfare, cause extensive damage to buildings and infrastructure. This damage undoubtedly leads to large amounts of asbestos fibre release creating a ‘hidden’ risk which was not anticipated or planned for.
While it has to be said that the immediate risk to life at such times is paramount and of primary concern, the risks from asbestos to first responders, victims, volunteers and local residents should not be ignored. The risks aren’t limited to the time of the disaster either, but can increase over time as people search through debris and buildings for the injured or possessions. And storms and floods can carry asbestos containing materials to other areas or contaminate soil and water leaving a ‘long tail’ risk.
How can these risks be reduced?
As the immediate risk of a disaster requires a time critical response the training, methods and resources to mitigate the risk from asbestos must be in place in advance.
Let’s look at four potential areas where the risks are at their highest during a disaster and briefly outline how we can better control the risk. Those areas would be emergency response during search and rescue; the clean-up operation following a disaster; disposal of asbestos debris and finally reconstruction.
Emergency Response: During the initial response to a disaster, first responders and local volunteers may be exposed to airborne asbestos fibres from the damaged buildings and may then find themselves having to dig through debris to search for the injured and trapped. This may continue for many days following the disaster and could lead to repeated exposures to asbestos. First responders should have be trained to a high standard in asbestos awareness and control measures prior to any disaster and adequate Personal Protective Equipment including suitable respirators should be available and worn during the response. Improving asbestos awareness among communities liable to disasters has also been identified as a key way to protect volunteers especially those ‘spontaneous’ volunteers and affected residents.
Clean-up Work: Following the disaster those tasked with the ‘clean-up’ may be faced with large spoil heaps of building materials and other debris that is contaminated with asbestos. It may be impossible to do a thorough inspection for asbestos prior to work starting. Therefore, a ‘watching brief’ by someone competent in identifying asbestos containing materials needs to be undertaken throughout the process. Where sampling of materials is not practical, then suspect materials should be presumed to contain asbestos. Again as the local community may get involved in such work a level of asbestos training should be undertaken to prevent asbestos material being moved or even broken up ‘gung ho’ albeit with good intentions by local volunteers.
During the clean-up work, the work area should be controlled, segregated and kept wet (where practical) to suppress any dust. Those within the work area should wear suitable protective equipment including FFP3 or N100 masks. Asbestos materials should only be handled by those who are qualified to do such work. If the work takes place in a country where there aren’t any available qualified contractors, then training should be given to those involved in the clean-up, as part of disaster preparedness training prior to the clean-up.
Disposal of Asbestos Debris: In many countries, disposal of asbestos may be regulated by Government authorities but in many developing countries safe disposal can be challenging and this will be the subject of a future article. If asbestos is disposed of on an unsuitable site, it can lead to exposure of workers, local residents and possibly others accessing the site. Wherever it is disposed of, the site should be secure and stable and the asbestos must be unable to contaminate water sources or soils.
There is evidence in many situations there is an exponential increase in risks posed by removed asbestos the further they need to travel to a disposal site. Admittedly there are no easy answers in this regard in many lands but good planning again is a key principle in mitigating the risk.
Reconstruction: In countries where asbestos building products, particularly asbestos cement, are still available to purchase, there can be a temptation to re-use them, either to provide temporary shelter or in permanent construction. However, this should be avoided wherever possible.
This is not intended to be a comprehensive discussion of the risks of asbestos following a disaster or how to control them, but merely to highlight the risks posed by asbestos worldwide or even closer to home. IE-365 can now offer bespoke training courses for First Responders and clean-up crews around the world. Available courses include “Asbestos Awareness for disaster relief workers”, “Lower risk work with asbestos for disaster relief workers” and “Managing asbestos during Disaster Relief”. For more information please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org will only be shown when viewing the full post.
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