Canadians Fear Tornadoes Raised Asbestos Exposure Risk
A tornado in the Mont-Bleu area of Gatineau in Western Quebec has locals thinking about the risks of asbestos exposure associated with natural disasters such as severe weather events.
“The tornado has lifted the lid off an old hazard that usually sits quietly in older buildings without bothering anyone: asbestos,” proclaimed a local newspaper, the Ottawa Citizen, referring to a twister as well as severe winds that whipped the region just last week, causing damage to the walls and ceilings of an abundance of homes and commercial buildings.
Though spokespersons for local government agencies appear not to be concerned about exposure – calling the risk to clean-up workers “almost non-existent” – others are concerned that tiles, shingles, siding, and other building products that contain asbestos are lying around where they are still exposed to the elements as well as to human hands.
When these damaged items are disturbed, dangerous fibers can be released into the air.
Most citizens, of course, are eager to have the materials removed from piles of debris and to start renovating homes and other buildings that were damaged in the tornado, which is a rare occurrence for Western Quebec and for Canada in general.
“It’s nothing to fool around with,” but at the same time, it is a manageable renovation problem, said Gary Sharp, director of renovator services with the Canadian Home Builders’ Association, of the asbestos issue.
“If the asbestos is contained — if it’s in a building material (such as) exterior siding or shingles or floor tiles” then it stays relatively safe, Sharp said. “It’s when the asbestos is loose and floating around in the air” that it becomes dangerous, “for instance if it’s in floor tile and somebody took a sander to it.”
Still, the Association stated that they are currently preparing a renovator’s manual that includes a chapter on asbestos and are eager to distribute this to homeowners and others impacted by last week’s vicious storms.
In the Canadian province of Quebec, asbestos was mined for more than 100 years. As such, the material – chrysotile asbestos – was used abundantly and can be found in just about every structure built prior to about 1990.
The last mine in Quebec closed about 6 years ago, continuing to operate even after Canada began phasing out use of the mineral in building and other products. After that, the mine imported tons of chrysotile to Third World countries that continue to use the toxic mineral.
Similarly, storms in the U.S. can cause asbestos concerns like those in Gatineau. Homes in the United States built prior to about 1980 may contain asbestos, and when they are damaged by storms and tornadoes, similar concerns may be present.
That’s why after-storm clean-up should always be done by those wearing protective clothing, including respirators, so as to avoid exposure.