Monday, 24 June 2013

What do the Calgary floods have to do with asbestos?


As the city of Calgary, Alberta and its surrounding areas begin to assess the cleanup from last week’s record-breaking flood, it is important that public health remains on the radar. There are many risks to people’s health that can result from exposure to hazards that are the direct result of the floods or the cleanup efforts.

Aerial view of downtown Calgary June 22, 2013**

One such concern is asbestos. As a very popular building material for home and other buildings during the twentieth century, asbestos is present in most of Canada’s cities, in buildings built before the year 2000.

Asbestos is not dangerous when it is isolated in building materials but as soon as it is disturbed, its fibres will become airborne. From there, they can enter a person’s lungs and wreak havoc years later in the form of asbestos-related diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis.

From the images of the record-breaking floods, we have seen the power of water. It has the power to destroy property and break apart even the strongest materials… Materials like those reinforced with asbestos, materials that are present in many buildings around Canada, including in Calgary.  

The damaged homes resulting from flooding could have been made with asbestos containing materials such as drywall, insulation, tiles, roofing, siding, gaskets, and sealants. There are so many possible uses for asbestos that so many products – over 3000! – in the twentieth century were made in part with asbestos.

During the 1950s, Calgary’s population was expanding. Calgary remained one of the fastest growing cities in Canada due to oil production for the next few decades after that, too. With so many new homes required and asbestos being the popular product of the day, it is not unreasonable to assume that many of the homes still in the area contain asbestos.

Floods can expose asbestos in homes that was isolated before, preventing contact with people. Flooding can also damage materials containing asbestos, a situation that will also lead to asbestos fibres in the air. Water is strong enough to break these materials down enough that asbestos fibres can easily get into the air once they dry out.

Unfortunately, there is not yet a registry for buildings containing asbestos in Canada, though Saskatchewan recently committed to create a registry for that province. A registry of buildings in which asbestos is present could be a very useful source during cleanups after floods or other natural disasters.

Armed with information about where people could encounter asbestos would allow us to take the necessary safety precautions to keep residents, and especially first responders and disaster relief workers, as safe and healthy as possible.

Resources:
The Canadian Encyclopedia. (2012). Calgary. Retrieved June 2013 from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/calgary.
The Mesothelioma Center. (2013). Asbestos and Natural Disasters. Retreived June 2013 from http://www.asbestos.com/asbestos/natural-disasters/.


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