This past weekend, a tornado left residents of a town on the coast of New South Wales, Australia reeling. Now, authorities warn that asbestos contamination could be a very serious problem left behind by the storm because a high amount of asbestos-laden debris is now littering the streets of Kiama.
The tornado totally destroyed at least 2 Kiama homes and damaged up to 170 more on Sunday morning, according to a report by the Australian Broadcasting Company. As a result of this destruction, “a significant amount of asbestos sheeting” was scattered throughout the town.
When the asbestos was wet, it wasn’t much of a concern. Now, however, as the weather clears, the damaged material could release minuscule particles into the air, exposing locals and clean-up crews to inhalation danger. Asbestos exposure is the only cause of mesothelioma and other diseases such as asbestosis.
Tara McCarthy, State Emergency Services deputy commissioner, says the number of homes to be evacuated is still unknown. “We’re working with Fire and Rescue, and on their advice and they’ve cordoned off a number of areas and they’re looking at implementing local evacuations,” she said during a press conference.
Some experts have compared the damage left by the tornadoes to scenes from the U.S. Midwest: “Flying over and seeing the roof of the fire station missing, seeing from the air mature trees that look as though they’ve been through a mix-master and seeing blue tarpaulins along a defined corridor, this is the sort of event that you associate with a tornado going through parts of America,” said New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell. “Not what we normally see along our coastline.”
Australia has been known for extensive asbestos use in the past, and the country has the highest rate of mesothelioma in the world.