Disasters Expose Clean-Up Workers to Heavy Pollutants
Disasters, whether man-made or natural, take their toll not only in lives lost on the spot but also in diseases developed long after the events have taken place, caused by the release into the air of toxic elements normally enclosed within buildings and equipment.
Cleaning up after a disasterThe most relevant example is how the tragedy of 9/11 continued to take its toll long after the events of that day ended. Among the terrible effects felt for years after the fall of the Twin Towers were the cancers caused by exposure to heavy pollutants in firefighters and other rescue workers present at the scene. The public became aware of this situation when, in 2002, an extensive study found WTC firefighters to have developed what became known as "World Trade Center Cough". In 2006, the first death occurred, and the name of Detective James Zadroga was later given to the Compensation Act of 2011 that recognized the ongoing effects of 9/11 exposure, and reestablished and endowed the Victim Compensation Fund. Soon, more people will have died from diseases caused by pollutant exposure than from being on the spot in the actual attacks. Dozens of cancers, mostly respiratory and digestive, as well as other illnesses are known to have been caused by exposure to toxic elements in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
The plight of firefighters, police, rescue workers and citizens involved in the cleanup on 9/11 raised the issue of cancer developed following exposure to debris in the aftermath of such tragic events: acts of terrorism, natural disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, fires and many other types of accidents that cause entire man-made structures, buildings and equipment to collapse.
Dealing with debris and damaged buildingsConsider this: any such disaster breaks down the structure of buildings and releases a mixture of elements that were never supposed to be exposed, from the lead used in pipes and electronics to mercury and copper used in computer components and cables, and massive doses of asbestos used in construction materials (for instance, over 300 tons of asbestos were released into the air after the collapse of the Twin Towers, together with many other extremely toxic elements).
When such terrible events occur, as did many times with terror acts or natural disasters - think of the Malibu fire of 1993, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Tuscaloosa tornado of 2011 and so many others - cleanup efforts must be deployed under strict regulations to minimize exposure and protect lives. The Environmental Protection Agency now has clear regulations in place for such cases, including non-intervention for the general public and resorting to certified asbestos contractors, except for extreme situations when "No Action Assurance" letters are sent to affected communities.