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Relief Workers and Long-term Health

Posted: 17th December 2018

Molly McGuane

Communications Specialist and Health Advocate

Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center

Those working in the construction, demolition and mining industries have historically been those most at risk for exposure to serious airborne toxins. Today, those who serve on clean-up crews in the wake of natural disasters may also be at risk of being exposed to displaced toxic materials. Due to proximity near coastal lands and bodies of water, the UK commonly faces the threat of annual flooding. This flooding can unfortunately damage homes and structures, leading to materials being uprooted and moved.

Among the remains of homes and buildings, there may be toxins like asbestos that leave relief workers vulnerable to inhaling dangerous debris. Asbestos specifically remains a health hazard since its debut dating to the early 1900s, and the widespread incorporation of the mineral into building materials is why it has remained a threat. Flooding and serious storms can cause asbestos-containing materials to become broken or destroyed. When asbestos is reduced to small fibers, it can be easily inhaled by those in the area.

Fly tipping is another environmental issue that can cause dangerous materials to be moved during storms or floods. Fly-tipping, or the illegal dumping of waste, incidents have been increasing of the past couple years, and in several cases asbestos has been found among waste that has not been properly disposed of. The practice of fly-tipping is not only illegal, but can be a dangerous public health risk. In the event of a flood or storm, waste from fly-tipping could be carried and dispersed, leaving those in charge of community clean ups unaware of the hazardous waste they are handling.

Safety Precautions for Workers

For volunteers or workers who are tasked with cleaning communities in the aftermath of a storm or natural disaster, having a set of safety guidelines to adhere to could help stop incidents of toxic exposure before they happen. Here are a few safety precautions for clean-up crews to follow:

  • Clean-up crews should be outfitted in the appropriate clothing and footwear, including safety glasses, gloves and boots at all times to avoid skin contact with any chemical or sharp material that may have have been uprooted. Workers and volunteers should wash off their clothing before returning home to avoid bringing any unwanted toxins back to their families.
  • Especially when picking up remnants of homes or buildings, workers should have respirator masks that protect from mold, dust and asbestos. The most common form of mesothelioma is pleural mesothelioma, which forms in the lining of the lungs and is caused from inhaling microscopic asbestos particles.
  • Before working in any area damaged by a flood, especially one with standing water, workers should refrain from entering until electrical wiring has been examined and the area is deemed safe.
  • Workers should make sure their immunization records are up-to-date, including tetanus. Relief workers, in floodwaters are at a greater risk for developing tetanus if they have cuts or open wounds.

When a storm hits, we can’t control the amount of damage forces of wind and water may cause, but proper prevention and safety in the wake of these disasters can keep first responders, volunteers and clean-up groups from contracting any long term health issues. With increased flooding in Britain being one of the ways climate change is manifesting, it’s important for community members to be aware of where toxic materials may be and their implications on public health.

Contributor: Molly McGuane is a Communications Specilaist and Health Advocate for the Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center