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Disaster-Related Exposures

Responders to the World Trade Center (WTC) disaster were exposed on an acute short-term basis to an asbestos-containing mixture of particulate matter released by the collapsing towers and by rescue, recovery, and clean-up activities.

Among the early responders who were exposed short-term during the hours to days after the collapse were

Some people exposed acutely to the high concentrations of dust released by the towers collapse subsequently developed reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS). The U.S. Environmental Protections Agency (EPA) found that exposure of laboratory mice to WTC PM2.5 also developed airway irritation [EPA 2002].

Another population potentially exposed to the complex particulates from the tower collapse was the people whose residences in nearby buildings were contaminated with dust from the WTC collapse.

Public concern about possible health risks faced by this population led authorities to study the air quality and settled dust in residences near Ground Zero. EPA found asbestos fibers greater than 5 microns in length in 0.4% of settled dust samples (n=22,497) collected from these residences [EPA 2005]. At the time of residential air sampling for a study by the New York Department of Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) in November-December 2001 [New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and ATSDR 2002] total fiber levels (i.e., including asbestos and all other fibers present) were orders of magnitude below the occupational exposure limit for asbestos, even with aggressive sampling. It was estimated, based on an extreme worst-case scenario, that someone living for a full year in an uncleaned residence would have a 1 in 10,000 risk of developing cancer (mesothelioma) due to that exposure [New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and ATSDR 2002]. The same authorities concluded that, with appropriate cleaning of residences, the dust would present little risk.

Natural disasters can also release asbestos from both naturally occurring and man-made sources. An example of a natural disaster involving the release of naturally occurring asbestos is the Swift Creek landslide in Washington State. The rock in this very large, unstable slope contains naturally occurring asbestos. As it progressively breaks up over time, slumping and sliding into the valley below, it releases asbestos into the environment, leaving those nearby at risk of exposure [ATSDR 2008].

An example of a natural disaster releasing man-made asbestos would be a tornado that releases asbestos into the environment when it destroys asbestos-containing buildings.

Content source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

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