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Demolition of Houses Damaged By Hurricane Sandy Poses Asbestos Exposure Risk

Asbestos Exposure _ the Risk of Mesothelioma

Approximately 200 houses in Staten Island, Queens and Brookyn battered by Hurricane Sandy will be demolished in coming months, The New York Times reported Sunday. The houses slated for demolition are all older structures and have building materials containing asbestos.

Thousands of people have stepped forward to take part in the cleanup since Hurricane Sandy struck New York and New Jersey in late October. Dr. Raja Flores, chief of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital, said the cleanup was in some ways comparable to the cleanup after the Sept. 11 attacks. “You have all these innocent people trying to help and they are subjecting themselves to asbestos, a known carcinogen,” Dr. Flores told The Atlantic about asbestos exposure after the hurricane.

Asbestos exposure causes serious respiratory diseases including asbestosis, a chronic scarring of the lungs, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs. Symptoms of mesothelioma typically take decades to appear after exposure, but the cancer is aggressive once symptoms appear.

Asbestos was used in floor and roofing felts, drywall, floor tiles, insulation, spray or ceiling coatings until the 1980s when its production was curtailed. But when older houses are renovated or demolished, the asbestos fibers may be released into the air and inhaled if workers are not wearing proper breathing protection. Being exposed to asbestos fibers in the air is the major risk factor for mesothelioma, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Demolition and constructions workers and anyone clearing construction debris may be at risk of exposure to asbestos if they disturb asbestos containing materials. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has standards to protect workers from exposure to asbestos during construction and demolition. The standards describe the hazards of asbestos work activities and detail specific requirements for each category of work. OSHA has field staff in New York providing technical support and training for those involved in the cleanup.

New York building inspectors have declared nearly 900 building unsafe to enter, affixing red tags to signal they are unsafe to enter. But not all buildings that are tagged will be demolished.

About 2,500 to 3,000 people are diagnosed with the mesothelioma each year in the U.S. Most are older workers, retired workers and veterans who were regularly exposed to asbestos in a workplace or during military service decades ago. Asbestos disease typically takes 20 years to 50 years to appear. But once symptoms show, the disease often advances quickly and is difficult to manage with current treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation.

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