When an extreme weather event or natural disaster happens, the last thing you’ll be thinking about is what’s behind your walls or underneath the tiles in your kitchen.

Unfortunately, countless New Zealand homes have asbestos hiding in plain sight and during a disaster it can become dangerous or even deadly. Storms, floods, fires, earthquakes and even heavy rain can damage the material, causing it to release hazardous fibres.

To keep you safe in the aftermath of extreme weather or natural disaster, we’ve had a look at the risk that asbestos poses during and after the event, and why it’s always best to perform asbestos removal before the unexpected happens.


The risk of asbestos after natural disasters

When asbestos is non-friable (not crumbling or releasing dust) and in good condition, it generally poses no health risk. Provided you’re not renovating or disturbing your home’s structure, there’s no reason to panic right away if you discover your property contains non-friable asbestos. If the asbestos is encapsulated behind specialist material or gib, it’s even safer and less likely to release fibres into the air. However, during a natural disaster that can all change.


Fire can damage asbestos even if it’s encapsulated and in good condition. Fibres may be released rapidly as the material is dried and broken. These microscopic fibres may be inhaled with smoke, causing additional danger to inhabitants. After the fire, asbestos containing materials (ACMs) throughout the house that have been damaged may continue releasing fibres until they’re removed.


Earthquakes can also damage asbestos---even if it’s encapsulated. If your home is destroyed completely, the site may be contaminated by rubble containing asbestos until the material is removed by professionals. Your home may also be damaged in ways that you can’t see, whether it’s cracks in the walls and ceiling or shifting foundations. This can damage the ACM, causing it to become friable and dangerous.


Floods may cause moisture to soak into your walls and floors. Over time this can cause ACMs to swell and become damaged, contaminating your home. You may not be able to see the damaged asbestos either, making it even more dangerous.


Storms and heavy rain are likely to damage and degrade the ACMs on the outside of your property, such as concrete tiles, wall cladding and spouting. This can happen in a single heavy storm, or gradually over time. For that reason if your home has asbestos on its exterior, it’s almost always best to remove it now, rather than risk doing so in future when it’s damaged.

Asbestos is durable and resistant to heat, moisture and chemical degradation, but as tough as it is, it rarely remains intact during natural disasters. It also tends to degrade and become dangerous over time, meaning in most cases it will have to be removed or encapsulated eventually. Regardless, if it’s in your home and disaster strikes, it may make your problems even worse.


Why asbestos removal is always the best idea

It may be cheaper to remove asbestos before a disaster or weather event---while it’s still in good condition. That’s because removing non-friable asbestos that’s in good shape is far simpler than removing asbestos that is damaged and friable (as it would be after a disaster). To remove friable asbestos, a specialist enclosure must be erected, extensive safety regulations must be followed and extreme care must be taken to avoid re-contaminating the property. Costs can accumulate quickly. 

Removing asbestos before a disaster is also likely to be far easier and faster. That’s because the asbestos is less dangerous and volatile, making it easier to remove.

Most importantly, removing asbestos before a natural disaster or weather event damages it is usually far safer. There’s obviously no risk of asbestos fibres affecting your health after a disaster if they’ve already been removed. What’s more, when the material is contained, it’s far easier to fully remove and ensure that your property is completely asbestos free.


Historic disasters and asbestos

Looking at past events gives us an idea of the nuisance and cost of dealing with asbestos after a natural disaster.

The Christchurch earthquakes in 2011 are one such event. After the tragedy occured there were a massive 4.25 million tonnes of rubble to be removed and disposed of. Unfortunately, a large proportion of it contained asbestos, making the clean up considerably more expensive, time consuming and dangerous. What’s more, countless homes throughout the region were damaged, which may have affected asbestos and caused it to release dangerous fibres into the air.

Every damaged home that was suspected to contain asbestos had to be sampled and tested, and management plans had to be prepared, including asbestos removal were it deemed necessary. This came at great cost to property owners, insurance companies and businesses, and in some cases may have delayed people’s return to their homes indefinitely.


There are also examples of disasters releasing dangerous asbestos fibres into the air overseas, most notably the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. When the planes hit, a massive cloud of smoke, dust and debris dispersed across the area. Asbestos fireproofing material from 20 storeys of the tower spread over neighbouring streets, homes and buildings.


It’s estimated that 410,000 people we exposed to dangerous toxins, including asbestos. For months after the attacks, cleanup workers were exposed to potentially hazardous levels of asbestos at ground zero and in surrounding areas.


As a result, nearly 70 per cent of recovery workers have suffered lung problems, as well as several people who were nearby at the time. Tens of thousands of people reported respiratory illness, with total settlements for asbestos-related health problems exceeding $800 million. This was all despite the multi-million dollar asbestos cleanup operation that occured after the attacks.


Preparing for the unexpected

With any luck your property won’t be affected by a natural disaster and doesn’t contain any asbestos whatsoever. However, it’s always best to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. If you know or suspect that there’s asbestos in your home, get in touch with the team at Chemcare to find out for sure.


We’ll survey your property according to strict regulations then test the samples using an accredited laboratory so that you can be certain of the extent, location and condition of all asbestos in your property. From there, we’ll prepare a comprehensive report including expert advice on whether asbestos removal is the right option for you. We’re licensed class-A removalists, so if it comes to it we can complete the entire process from testing to removal.