Joplin Faces Health And Environmental Risks In Tornado Aftermath

As cleanup efforts continue after a massive tornado devastated Joplin, Missouri the city faces more trouble: the tornado’s impact on the environment and the health of its citizens.

The tornado that struck Joplin on May 22, 2011 is regarded as the deadliest in the United States in more than 60 years and the eighth all time deadliest. It had winds over 200 mph and a diameter of half a mile. 138 People were killed, 900 people were injured, and 8,000 buildings were destroyed. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has reported 7,000 Joplin residents have registered for assistance after the tornado ravaged the city.

Experts are concerned with toxic substances the tornado had displaced and spread amidst the debris. The city’s industrial area had many buildings used by chemical suppliers, natural gas companies, and paint manufacturers, which, for the most part, have been destroyed. The substances from these buildings can seep into the ground and contaminate groundwater. Also, as the debris is cleared away, there is a possibility that toxic materials within the debris can be disturbed and released into environment. As bulldozers plow through debris, significant amounts of dust may be released into the air, as well.

The EPA deployed an emergency response team to inspect the area for immediate risks to human health and to the environment. They visited sites with underground storage tanks, wastewater treatment plants, and other places that could cause significant pollution. Other than an anhydrous ammonia leak at the Jasper Products trucking company which was sealed shortly by their hazardous materials crew, the EPA concluded that at the moment, there were no major toxic spills or releases at the 40 sites they inspected.

Among the buildings that were destroyed, some of the older ones may have released toxic substances such as asbestos and lead. Until it was banned in 1992, lead has been added to paints to increase its durability and resistance to moisture. Likewise, insulation containing the carcinogen asbestos was sold until 1990. Other building materials that could contain asbestos include roof shingles, siding, and felt, floor tiles, acoustical ceiling tiles, sealants, paint, putty caulking, and drywall. Property owners and search and rescue workers involved in clean up and recovering personal items are urged to be cautious when going through debris. Exposure to lead, asbestos, and other toxic substances can cause major health problems.

The EPA has been monitoring asbestos levels and other dangerous pollutants in the air and has reported that tests reveal no asbestos has been found and air quality is “normal”. As an added precaution, the EPA has supplied masks and given special safety instructions to search and rescue crews, contractors, volunteers, and residents.

Oil leaking from blown electrical transformers also pose a threat. Some of the older transformers may also contain polychlorintated biphenyls (PCBs), a highly toxic substance. It is not known how many transformers were destroyed by the tornado.

Heavy rains have complicated the situation and caused flash flooding in some areas, potentially contaminating the city’s waterways.

Hoping to speed up cleanup and removal of debris, state officials have allowed some leniency with environmental regulations. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources issued a waiver that permits a limited amount of wood debris to be burned. Also, landfills are permitted to accept certain types waste that would normally be rejected, such as appliances, brush, and yard waste.

For the most part, there have been no objections to these relaxed environmental regulations, even from environmentalists. “The last thing you want to do when a community’s dealing with a situation like this is require a lot of permits and paperwork,” said Kathleen Logan Smith, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

Even though burning debris is allowed to a limited extent, officials and experts still urge that debris be sorted properly and recycled. “I know there’s a huge amount of debris, but finding a landfill in a valley someplace where you can put it and cover it over is a lot wiser than burning it. There are health hazards associated with burning debris of any sort,” said David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany-SUNY.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources urges everyone to separate different types of waste so they can be disposed of properly. Materials such as household chemicals, paints, and treated woods should be kept from being sent to landfills. Also, appliances should be recycled and vegetation converted to compost as much as possible. Minimizing the improper handling and disposal of waste will help prevent any further health hazards and damage to the environment.

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