Frequently used in construction up until the 1970s, asbestos is virtually harmless if left undisturbed, but becomes incredibly dangerous otherwise. When asbestos is moved, it releases microscopic fibers into the air, which can then be inhaled and embedded into the lungs. These fibers are often the cause of mesothelioma cancer, a disease that remains dormant in the body for decades after asbestos exposure before severely affecting the lining of the lungs. When the dangers of asbestos became known its use became heavily restricted or banned in most western countries, but many structures containing the substance still exist. As a precaution, governments have put strict regulations on the handling and removal of asbestos in order to minimize the risk.
According to Geoff Fray, Chairman of Australia’s Asbestos Management Review, natural disasters pose a serious health risk in their ability to release asbestos into the environment. The government has raised concerns that this level of exposure will eventually lead to increased rates of mesothelioma cancer and lung cancer, so the review is making efforts to raise awareness and tighten up guidelines for preventing exposure. As it stands, around 600 people in Australia die from mesothelioma annually.
Professor Bogda Koczwara, President of the Clinical Oncological Society of Australia, said that this rate is increasing.
“This is a highly lethal cancer with very poor survival, yet many people don’t realize they are exposing themselves to asbestos when they pull up their lino [sic] floors or recover relics from their flooded home.”
These concerns are also relevant to the United States, whose regulation of asbestos is strict without having outright banned the substance. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to stress that people should avoid handling any damaged material should their homes and businesses be affected by a natural disaster. People should wait until emergency crews arrive to remove any hazardous material.
At the current rate of exposure, mesothelioma cancer is expected to peak within the next decade. The hope is that regular compliance with safety restrictions will eventually eradicate or at least significantly reduce asbestos cancers.