Five years after the tornado, a killer lurks in the debris

Catoosa County firefighter Nick O'Connell demonstrates the self-contained breathing apparatus that could keep firefighters safe from breathing asbestos.
photo Catoosa County firefighter Nick O'Connell demonstrates the self-contained breathing apparatus that could keep firefighters safe from breathing asbestos.

Minutes after tornadoes' winds ripped trees from the ground and hurled them into homes, flattened buildings and killed residents from Rainsville, Ala., to Ringgold, Ga., to Hamilton County, firefighters, volunteers from the Salvation Army, church groups and survivors were trying to help the injured.

In the pitch darkness of April 27, 2011, residents of Ringgold followed the sound of their neighbors' screams to dig survivors out of the debris, lifting boards, crushed plaster and torn tiles that they could not see. At 9 p.m., a boy called 911 from Apison in Hamilton County to alert the dispatcher that "a tornado passed through my neighborhood - power lines are down and people are calling for help."

Dispatcher: "You can't see anyone, but you can hear them calling for help?

Boy: "Yes sir, I'm in the closet with my sister and brother, and my parents are outside looking for people."

Courageous and selfless first responders, volunteers and neighbors faced dangers from shifting debris, downed power lines, broken glass and razor sharp metal. But there was another hazard in the aftermath of the horrific storms. And it is essential to protect oneself against it because it can be lethal even for those exposed to it for less than a day.


"If a house, commercial building or mobile home was built before 1980, it's almost certain to contain asbestos and no amount of asbestos is safe to breathe; just one day of exposure can increase a person's risk of mesothelioma," says Dr. Arthur Frank, the Drexel University Chair of Environmental and Occupational Health who has studied asbestos for more than 40 years. He is keenly familiar with research showing that asbestos causes mesothelioma, a vicious, incurable and painful form of cancer.

Many Americans assume the United States has banned asbestos as unsafe, the way 55 other nations have. They are wrong.

Most U.S. manufacturers avoid asbestos because of the potential legal liability and possible lawsuits. But the substance is not illegal and is still used on the back of vinyl floor tiles, inside shingles and in insulation. It is used in auto brake linings and other parts by some carmakers. And the nations that depend on asbestos for income - China, Zimbabwe, former Soviet republics - have been caught using asbestos in construction materials that American buyers thought were asbestos-free.

Asbestos is typically considered safe when contained inside something like a tile or shingle. But a tornado shreds flooring, rips apart shingles and smashes homes apart. Frank worries about firefighters, medics and volunteers who aren't equipped with protective masks.

"Even one day of exposure to airborne asbestos increases a person's risk of mesothelioma," Frank explains. "Disaster response volunteers can increase their risk of lung cancer if they don't protect themselves from breathing in asbestos."

Add to that the fact that it can take decades for mesothelioma to incubate in the body before ravaging it, and it's easy to forget asbestos in the adrenaline rush of rescue or clearing a neighborhood of painful reminders of devastation.

Essentially, cleanup can be as hazardous as the storm for first responders and volunteers from church groups, disaster relief organizations like the Salvation Army and good neighbors helping survivors search for pets, wallets or a mementos. Yet there are ways to make a tornado's aftermath safer for those who are already doing dangerous work helping those who have lost everything except their lives.

Volunteer protection

When Bradley Baptist Association volunteers traveled from Cleveland, Tenn., to Gulfport, Miss., to help the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, there were no structures to shelter them. Many homes had been swept into the Gulf of Mexico, as if the storm were a giant broom. All that was left were cement foundations. Debris mountains and uprooted trees were everywhere. No surviving motels or hotels had rooms to offer the volunteers.

"We slept in a parking lot under the stars," BBA Disaster Coordinator Randy Bonner recalls.

To make sure they can truly help, whether cleaning up after a hurricane of tornado, BBA volunteers "bring our own chainsaws, wheelbarrows and tools along on an emergency response because we focus on clearing fallen trees from roads and off cars and houses," he says.

"We bring our own protective gear, which is mainly gloves, chaps, helmets, eye protection. Our volunteers also go through a credentialing process that includes safety training."

Protective masks, even cloth surgical masks, are not part of their regular gear.

The night after Katrina, the volunteers had to contend with heat, lack of electricity, lack of clean water and looters roaming the area.

"We could hear big, hungry dogs in the darkness - so dangers from asbestos weren't at the top of our mind at that point," Bonner says wryly.

Most volunteers are trained to triage danger and prioritize peril that can be seen and dealt with immediately. As Bonner says, asbestos isn't first and foremost on their minds.

But the Army Corps of Engineers was so alarmed when 2,600 tons of asbestos debris was collected from the destruction left by a 2011 tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., one of its industrial hygienists created a PowerPoint training session for first responders in tornado-prone regions like the Southeast and Midwest.

Asbestos is a big enough danger that the American Red Cross of Southeast Tennessee tells its volunteers to stay away from tornado and storm debris.

"We focus on providing tornado survivors with shelter, feeding them, providing counseling and reconnecting them with relatives who they thought might have been killed," says David Kitchen, disaster program manager for American Red Cross of Southeast Tennessee. "We don't pull people from debris.

"Our volunteers are not first responders," he continues. "We don't put them in danger. We tell them to wait till the roads have been cleared of downed power lines and trees before they get on the roads. The Baptists come in with chainsaws and go to town, but we don't want our volunteers close enough to the debris to inhale asbestos or other toxins because we don't have breathing apparatus for them."

Jerri Price of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Chattanooga says they did not send volunteers to clear tornado or other debris after the 2011 storms.

While some local first responders realize that asbestos is a danger during disaster cleanup, they don't always wear equipment that will protect them from breathing it in - even if they have the equipment on hand.

"Our self-contained breathing apparatus that we wear during fires protects against asbestos," says Catoosa County Fire Department Division Chief Steve Quinn. "But they are too cumbersome and decrease our visibility too much to wear them when there isn't a fire and we're searching for people trapped in debris. We have cloth masks on trucks to protect us from some airborne toxins, but they don't protect us if the airborne particulates are too small."

Catoosa Fire Chief Chuck Nichols acknowledges that the EPA has specific rules for handling asbestos-containing debris.

"The Environmental Protection Agency and several state-affiliated departments of health and natural resources have issued guidelines for effective management of asbestos-related building debris to minimize the potential exposure to airborne particles," he says.

"If materials must be moved before professional help can assess the situation, persons should use only properly fitted National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health- approved N-100, P-100 or R-100 respirators," he says. "Paper masks, handkerchiefs or other, lower grades of air filters should not be used as they will provide little or no protection from hazards such as asbestos fibers."

A life-saving P100 Disposable Particulate Cup Respirator with Cool Flow Exhalation Valve costs just $15 from Amazon. Shipping is free if a dozen are purchased.

Frank says asbestos particulates are tiny enough to sneak through cloth face masks. And he cautions that asbestos can float in the air for days after a tornado has passed. The wind can blow asbestos into neighborhoods far from the original tornado strike, endangering those who breathe in the fibers.

He recalls that, back in the 1970s when the World Trade Towers were sprayed with asbestos for fireproofing, the wind quickly carried the fibers from New York City to Boston.

"Asbestos can be identified when it has a certain signature; what was used on the Trade Towers had a signature, or chemical makeup, unlike other asbestos," Frank says.

Dealing with asbestos

His urgent advice to first responders and neighbors is, if asbestos could be in the debris, "hose it down with water immediately. Asbestos is dangerous in the air, ready to be inhaled. The water forces it to adhere to the debris while wet."

In addition to keeping asbestos debris wet until it can be bagged and sealed inside a steel drum and taken to a toxic landfill or designated dump, Catoosa's Nichols advises anyone dealing with the debris to wear disposable coveralls and boots.

"Gear which is not disposable may be possible to decontaminate, have it cleaned professionally," he says.

That means finding a contractor certified to do asbestos cleanup or repairs to damaged homes. Tom Laubenthal has taught some of those contractors as technical chief of The Environmental Institute in Atlanta.

"In a perfect world, the EPA would be in the area immediately after a tornado to help figure out which debris is asbestos tainted. But this isn't a perfect world and the EPA is understaffed and needed in a lot of places," Laubenthal says. "That's why I suggest folks get a contractor trained in asbestos removal and disposal to help repair their homes after a tornado."

For example, asbestos is sometimes used in adhesives that stick vinyl tiles to floors so, if a tornado rips away the floor, asbestos residue will remain.

"Before a homeowner attacks his floor with a power sander, I hope he will pick up the phone and call someone who's trained to dispose of asbestos," Laubenthal says.

Contact Lynda Edwards at 423-757-6391 or