Any time a natural disaster happens, we gasp at the aftermath. No one wants to see downed trees, crumbling buildings, battered cars, and debris scattered through areas that were once neighborhoods full of contented residents. The end result is never a pretty site, and not only is it ugly to look at but it’s also dangerous to peruse.
Yet, as is human nature, so many people go back to the scene of a disaster to scour debris for their belongings. This will likely be the case after the wildfires that are burning in both Northern and Southern California.
But no matter how much one wants to find that treasured photo album, that favorite piece of furniture, or any other personal belonging, it should be made clear that those searchers may be getting more than they bargained far. They may wind up being exposed to asbestos.
Until approximately 1980, many building products in the U.S. contained asbestos. The naturally-occurring mineral was used due to its strength and its ability to conduct heat and resist fire.
It could be found in cement, insulation, tiles, siding, shingles, and a wealth of other materials contractors used to build a home or commercial building.
During a fire, building materials that contain asbestos will generally crack or “spall”. Spalling occurs when flakes of asbestos pop off due to excessive buildup of pressure inside the material.
Spalling can be abundant and these flakes can be deadly. It’s likely the aftermath will also result in larger pieces of burnt or unburnt asbestos left lying around where those involved in rescue and recovery can be exposed.
Add to the mix some high winds and you’ll see asbestos dust and materials strewn far and wide.
In most cases, it will likely be the responsibility of the homeowner to clean up all debris, including asbestos-containing debris. Hence, if a homeowner knows or expects there was asbestos in his/her home prior to the fire, they should employ a licensed asbestos inspector to comb the premises and identify the debris. Then it can be removed safely and by those who truly know how to handle the toxic material.
The Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District reminds homeowners everywhere that after a fire or other natural disaster they should do the following.
Avoid mixing of suspected asbestos-containing materials with other debris.
Where asbestos-containing materials are suspected to be mixed with debris, ALL debris is assumed to be contaminated and should be adequately wetted, double-bagged in thick plastic sheeting, recorded on a manifest and disposed of as asbestos-containing waste.
A survey by a certified asbestos consultant and/or site technician may be conducted to separate asbestos materials from other debris in order to reduce the amount of debris that needs to be disposed of as asbestos-containing waste, or to clear a site as non-hazardous.
The ONLY accepted test for bulk suspected asbestos-containing materials is Polarized Light Microscopy; testing is typically done to prove that there is NOT asbestos in the material.
Adequate wetting is required for removal and demolition for all asbestos-containing material.
For wetting small areas, use a spray dispenser. For larger areas, use a water hose with a nozzle for a fine, low-pressure spray or mist. When available, use water mixed with a wetting agent or surfactant.
Wetting down vehicles prior to leaving the property is advised. Respiratory protection and suitable Tyvek-style clothing is advised during inspection of dry burn sites.
Decontamination of the clothing and breathing apparatus is advised at the end of the inspection. Disposable Tyvek suits should be disposed of as hazardous waste.
Where asbestos-containing materials are known or assumed to be present, the debris should be stabilized by wetting and covered with plastic sheeting until it is scheduled to be removed. Wind-blown dry materials will release hazardous asbestos fibers.
Asbestos-containing materials must be disposed of at a landfill approved to receive asbestos.