Residents whose homes were damaged and destroyed in “Super Storm” Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 29, 2012, along with first responders and cleanup workers who assisted after the storm, are being screened for respiratory illnesses. There is concern that they were exposed to toxins including asbestos and mold in the debris. Respiratory problems linked to the storm have earned the moniker “Sandy lung.”
Awareness of the danger of airborne toxins was raised following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, when first responders, cleanup workers and residents living in close proximity to Ground Zero began to exhibit health problems after the attacks. It was determined that a mixture of toxins were thick in the air following the Twin Towers collapse, and inhalation of these dangerous chemicals resulted in respiratory illnesses and cancer such as mesothelioma, which is caused by asbestos exposure.
Staff from the Deborah Heart and Lung Center will visit Toms River, N.J., August 23 to provide free health screenings for township residents, first responders and residents who may have been exposed to mold, mildew, asbestos and other toxins from handling debris after Hurricane Sandy. The screenings will be funded by a $625,000 grant from the Robin Hood Relief Fund, which was formed after the 2001 World Trade Center attack to fund health screenings for first responders at that site.
Immediately following Hurricane Sandy, federal officials warned cleanup workers and residents involved in recovery efforts to be aware of the “hidden hazards” posed by storm debris, including the presence of asbestos. NJ.com quoted U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regional administrator Judith Enck at that time 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.”
Asbestos exposure, even in small amounts for limited time, can lead to the development of serious respiratory illnesses including asbestosis, a severe scarring of the lungs, and mesothelioma, a rare and deadly form of cancer that affects the lining of the lungs or abdomen. Asbestos fibers are microscopic and can be easily inhaled, even when light protective gear is worn, such as a paper mask.
Toms River will be the ninth Ocean County community to receive screening from the Deborah Center in the past few months. There are plans to expand the screening to Monmouth. To date, 345 people have been screened, and 50 were referred to their primary care physicians when abnormalities were identified. It is not clear that all abnormalities are the result of toxic exposure resulting from Hurricane Sandy; some may be pre-existing conditions that have only now come to light as a result of the free screening.