The Post-Disaster Asbestos Hazard: 1995-2020
Twenty-five years ago, on January 17, 1995 the Great Hanshin earthquake decimated parts of southern Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan causing the loss of 6,400 lives, injuring 43,000 people and forcing the evacuation of 316,000 residents. Nearly a quarter of a million buildings suffered total or substantial damage. Measurements taken after the disaster by Japans Environmental Agency showed an increase in ambient asbestos concentration in the earthquake zone prior to the quake, there had been an estimated 3,740 tonnes of sprayed-on and highly friable asbestos insulation or fire-proofing in the damaged buildings. To date, six cases of mesothelioma have been recognized as occupational diseases due to asbestos exposures experienced during recovery work after the quake; it is likely that more asbestos-related diseases will become manifest in years to come.
Meeting held by the Hyōgo Occupational and Safety Center in Kobe, Japan (January 2020) to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Great Hanshin earthquake.
Days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center (2001), American scientists reported dangerous levels of asbestos contamination in apartments and offices near ground zero. Asbestos contamination was also flagged up as a hazard in the aftermath of: the Indian Ocean Tsunami (2004), the 2005 Indonesian Earthquake and the 2011 Christchurch (New Zealand) Earthquake.
As bushfires raged out of control across the Australian states of Victoria and New South Wales in recent weeks, it was predictable that the asbestos hazard would, once again, become an issue of concern during clean-up operations, due to the ubiquity of asbestos use throughout Australia in the twentieth century.
When asked about the bushfire situation earlier this month, Emeritus Professor Ken Takahashi, Director of the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute (ADRI) in Sydney, said:
The current bushfire crisis in Australia has resulted in the destruction of more than 3,000 homes and commercial properties, with this number rising as uncontrolled fires continue to spread. One of the major concerns for firefighters, emergency responders and residents is the impact on respiratory health of exposure to the smoke and lingering plume which contains a wide range of volatile organic compounds, gases and dusts, including asbestos.
In Australia, many buildings constructed before 1987 are likely to contain asbestos and friable asbestos fibres released from the damaged buildings can be carried by the wind, thereby posing health risks to those within a certain radius. From the standpoint of zero-tolerance to asbestos, the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute (ADRI) of Australia, advocates that administrators and researchers take heed of lessons learned from the response to the 9/11 attack on New York during which the collapse of the Twin Towers and damage to buildings in lower Manhattan saw the release of up to 400 tons of pulverized asbestos into the air. The monitoring of the effects of asbestos exposures on the health of 9/11 first responders was an immediate priority of medical professionals and remains a central theme of a long-term medical follow-up study. Authorities in Australia need to acknowledge the hazard posed by asbestos exposure resulting from the bushfires and do everything possible to minimize the risk of asbestos-related diseases among those affected.
Subsequently, on January 17, the Australian Government issued a $5,000,000 2020 Bushfire Impact Research Grant Opportunity proposal designed to: link researchers, institutions, policy makers and professional associations together to gather evidence on the physiological and mental health effects of bushfires and exposure to hazardous smoke over time.1 Commenting on this proposal, ADRI Director Takahashi said:
The call by the Australian government for research proposals to address the bushfire events is a blessing. The funding profile is 5 million Australian dollars for 2019-20 with two streams, one on physiological and another on mental health impacts, both of which are critically important. However, in view of the potential risk posed by asbestos exposure, the scheme is too short-lived (<1 year) and lacks the necessary emphasis on long-term health effects. I am hoping the government takes further steps to cover the entire spectrum of respiratory health, including the long-term health effects that can be caused by exposures to asbestos.
January 21, 2020
1 National Health and Medical Research Council. Current Grant Opportunity View - GO3529. Jan. 17, 2020.