A fire at a plastic waste company in Indiana is raising a host of health concerns for area residents, especially with the discovery of asbestos in the debris, experts said Friday.
An evacuation order for about 1,500 residents of the city of Richmond near the Ohio line remained in effect as firefighters hosed down hot spots while federal, state and local agencies monitored contamination from air and water. It could take weeks for the fire to be fully extinguished, officials said.
Plans are being made to deal with the asbestos fragments in nearby neighborhoods, the US Environmental Protection Agency said. Inhaling asbestos can cause lung disease, including cancer.
“Probably the worst thing you could do if you have debris in your yard would be to mow and break up this material” and possibly inhale it, said EPA onsite coordinator Jason Sewell.
Crews were taking measurements of the air at 34 sites, he said, with some samples being sent for lab analysis. Monitors in the evacuation area detected hydrogen cyanide, benzene, chlorine, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds. Particles, or soot, which are common with fires, were also spotted.
WHAT IS ASBESTOS AND WHY IS IT DANGEROUS?
Asbestos is a group of mineral fibers that occur naturally in many soils and rocks. Due to its strength and resistance to heat, chemicals and corrosion, it has been widely used in building construction. Floor and ceiling tiles, insulation, pipes, adhesives and boilers were among the products made with asbestos.
Although not inherently toxic, the asbestos fibers that people breathe in can stick to the lungs and irritate tissues. Prolonged inhalation causes scarring that can lead to respiratory problems.
In some cases, asbestos can cause various cancers, including mesothelioma, a rare form that affects the membranes that line internal organs. It can take decades after exposure to appear, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
IS IT STILL USED?
In 1989, the EPA banned the manufacture, import, processing, and distribution of certain asbestos-containing products and banned new uses. Asbestos mining in the United States stopped in 2002, although some is imported and still used in construction.
Many homes and other buildings have materials, especially insulation, with asbestos.
HOW DID THE RICHMOND FIRE SPREAD ASBESTOS AND OTHER CONTAMINANTS?
Any significant disturbance, such as a structural failure, can release microscopic asbestos fibers, said Neil Donahue, professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University.
“If you have a collapsing wall, dust is generated and a plume of fire is the perfect place to take that dust, lift it up and disperse it,” he said.
The EPA collected two samples of “loose debris” that blew away and were found about 1.5 miles from the fire site, Sewell said. One of them tested positive for asbestos.
Smoke from virtually any fire will spread particles, which can drift for miles and stay in the air until rain washes them to the ground.
WHICH POLLUTANTS GENERATE PLASTIC FIRES?
Volatile Organic Compounds – man-made chemicals used in thousands of products, from paints and medicines to cleaning products and office equipment.
They can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, breathing difficulties and nausea. High exposure causes nervous system and organ damage, while some is linked to cancer.
Burning plastic can also release hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and heavy metals.
Another potential hazard comes from dioxins, which experts say can be generated when vinyl chloride – the chemical used to make rigid PVC pipe – is burned. The EPA ordered testing for the highly toxic compounds after a Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, released vinyl chloride.
“They’re incredibly long-lived, they’re not floating around in the air as much as they’re stuck in the ground,” said University of Chicago chemistry professor John Anderson. “These are the things that people nearby should worry about for long-term exposure. Smoke, air pollution, tends to be transient. It moves and disperses.
Dioxins enter the human body mainly through the consumption of meat or other contaminated foods.
WHAT CAN LOCALS DO TO PROTECT THEMSELVES?
As long as smoke remains visible, avoid the area as much as possible and consider wearing an N95 mask — a type widely used during the COVID-19 pandemic, Anderson said.
Inhaling asbestos for a few days should cause little lung scarring, he said. “But if you’re there for weeks and you’re exposed to it, it can be a real problem.”
Typically, people with high exposure to asbestos are those who mine it or work with it, such as construction workers, Anderson said.
Residents should stay informed about testing by government agencies, Donahue said. Air, groundwater and soil are pathways through which contaminants reach the human body.
“Who thinks of the different places where the toxic residues of this event could end up? I would like to know who is doing this, and how can I confirm and verify what they find,” Donahue said. “What concentrations are they worried about and why, and what are they actually seeing.”
AP Writer Ed White in Detroit contributed to this story.