Last week’s devastating tornado that plowed through Joplin, Missouri killed more than 140 people and nearly destroyed the town. But the tornado also created more insidious hazards that are only slowly becoming known.
The mountainous piles of debris most likely contain fuel from ruptured lines, asbestos from old building materials, and household and medical wastes. Fires generate smoke filled with dioxin, soot and other pollutants. Waterways are contaminated by chemicals from ruptured containers and municipal lines.
EPA teams sent to inspect the damage immediately after the tornado found no “serious” pollution issues, although it is too early to tell if the residents are out of the woods.
“Until the systematic assessment of the tornado’s impact area is complete, it is not possible to fairly evaluate levels of risk or priorities for environmental response,” said EPA spokesman Chris Whitley.
While not posing an immediate danger, asbestos can cause serious illnesses in the long term. The latency period between asbestos exposure and the development of asbestos related illnesses can be as long as 40 years.
Asbestos was widely used in building from the early part of the twentieth century until about 1980, when its use was phased out due to its links with mesothelioma, asbestos lung cancer, and other asbestos-related diseases.
Asbestos was once used in over 3000 products, including many construction products such as vinyl flooring, insulation, roofing, mastics, and plaster.