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Tornado cleanup brings asbestos concerns

As the residents of the battered town of Joplin, Missouri, continue to clean up from the devastating tornado that struck the city last month, there may be a new hazard to worry about. With over 8,000 destroyed structures throughout the region, it is likely that many of the materials being cleaned up and hauled away contain asbestos or similar materials, potentially placing residents and cleanup crews in danger of asbestos exposure and at risk of mesothelioma, lung cancer, or related diseases.

The April 24 tornado was the deadliest twister in the United States in more than 60 years, killing over 130 people and injuring almost 1,000 more. With over 200 mph winds, the half-mile wide tornado damaged or completely destroyed a number of buildings in Joplin's industrial corridor, which is home to natural gas companies, chemical suppliers and paint manufacturers.

Clearly, there are several chemical risks related to the damaged buildings in this area of the city. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency teams that were sent in to survey the damage reported that there were no significant pollution issues during the first week following the tornado. That agency continues to inspect the damage throughout the city.

However, many environmental experts are more worried about the potential for asbestos exposure as the city cleans up. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has relaxed several regulations regarding waste disposal and pollution. One such waiver was on the requirement that state-certified environmental supervisors monitor any removal of material that contains asbestos. If asbestos is not properly handled and disposed of, it could make its way into brush fires, producing dangerous emissions. In addition, debris can land several hundred miles away, bringing danger to other parts of Missouri and to neighboring states, such as Illinois.

Source: Associated Press, "Environmental hazards remain after Joplin tornado," Alan Scher Zagier and John Flesher, 31 May 2011

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