A recent report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) throws light on an alarming problem often overlooked in the wake of natural disasters – the massive increase in risk of exposure to asbestos. The report specifically examines the situation in Fukushima, Japan, following the devastating 2011 tsunami, which leveled miles of the country’s northeast coast, leaving piles of debris where communities once stood. Many of the buildings that were destroyed had been manufactured following World War II, using asbestos.
As the soggy landscape began to dry and clean-up workers tackled the challenge of clearing the devastated area, asbestos was released in clouds of dust. Workers wore no protective gear and most were, in fact, unaware of the dangers of asbestos. Asbestos has been linked to the development of mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer that may take decades to develop after exposure. Mesothelioma most often affects the lining of the lungs, but may also develop in the lining of the stomach or, more rarely, the heart. There is no known cure for mesothelioma. Asbestos exposure also may lead to the development of a wide variety of other diseases, such as asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs.
On its Lateline report, ABC estimates tens of thousands of people have been involved in the tsunami clean-up efforts, potentially exposed to asbestos. Only recently have any safety precautions been proposed, and most of those involve the distribution of paper masks – not a safe solution, as even the tiniest, microscopic asbestos fibers pose a hazard to the human body. The Japanese government has checked more than 800 sites in the affected region for toxins. ABC quotes Hideaki Kuribayashi with the Environment Ministry as saying, “we have confirmed 14 cases in which asbestos levels exceeded the World Health Organisation safety limit.”
With plans in the works to destroy about 4,000 damaged buildings in the coming months, the risk for more asbestos exposure is growing.
Similar dangers were faced by workers in the United States, following so-called “Superstorm Sandy,” which devastated a large portion of the East Coast, including New York and New Jersey. In December 2012, federal officials warned cleanup workers involved in recovery efforts to be aware of hidden health hazards posed by storm debris, including asbestos. News agency NJ.com quoted Judith Enck, regional administrator for the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who said, “We want to make sure that as the clean up is occurring that there are not problems with exposure to mold, exposure to lead, exposure to asbestos.”
The EPA warned not only are professional contractors and other workers employed in cleanup efforts at risk, but property owners, tenants, and volunteers who pitch in to help.