DENVER, Colo. - Relaxed state requirements for asbestos cleanup and removal have paved the way for a speedier recovery for homeowners and businesses affected by the devastating floods. But cleanup professionals say the trade-off could be putting people at risk.
"You can't see it, taste it or smell it. There's no way you'll know without having a certified person come in and test for it," says an industrial hygienist and state-certified asbestos inspector whose name we have withheld because he fears retaliation for speaking out.
On average, he says one in three homes in the state contains asbestos, and despite a common misconception that asbestos-containing products are no longer manufactured, the products are often shipped in from Canada and Mexico.
"If you don't know if a material has asbestos in it, you have to assume the material does, and treat it as an asbestos-containing material until it can be sampled and proven to not have asbestos in it," the inspector said.
But in flood cleanup guidance released earlier this week, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said, "To enable timely cleanup of flood debris... the department will temporarily not enforce certain regulatory requirements." When it comes to asbestos contamination, the document states that, "If this is not known, the material may be handled as non-asbestos flood debris, and disposed of at a permitted landfill."
But the asbestos inspector disagreed.
"Just removing the gross materials doesn't guarantee that all the asbestos fibers are going to be gone from the structure," the inspector said.
"So there could still be asbestos in the home, even though the materials are taken out?" Call7 Investigator Keli Rabon asked.
"Absolutely, because it's a microscopic fiber," he said.
If inhaled, those microscopic asbestos fibers can cause chronic lung disease or cancer, like mesothelioma. Studies show it can take 20 to 30 years before symptoms appear.
"Through this policy, is the state putting people at risk?" Rabon asked.
"Absolutely," the inspector said.
"I don't agree with that at all. The safety of our citizens, first-responders and cleanup crews is our number one priority," said Will Allison, CDPHE’s Director of Air Pollution Control.
Allison says the safest option is to clean flood debris as quickly as possible.
"We've seen 20,000 homes damaged or destroyed by the recent flooding, and since that's not the traditional type of remodel we would see, we recognize that in some stances, traditional regulations, it's not practical to have them apply," Allison said.
Previous guidance from the state has said, "Buildings of any age, even those newly built, may have asbestos containing material."
Allison admits many people may not know if asbestos is in their home.
"This may be another area where we provide some updated guidance in the near future," Allison said.
The inspector told Call7 Investigators he hopes that revised guidance comes quickly. Otherwise, he fears people may face the impact of the flooding once again, many years down the road.
"It just takes one fiber to get in there and start working its way through your lung to give you mesothelioma. Obviously, I'm not a medical expert, but I wouldn't want to gamble that with my children or myself," the inspector said.
To review CDPHE's guidance for flood cleanup, click here: www.colorado.gov/cs/Satellite/CDPHE-EPR/CBON/1251645971558.
For advice from the EPA about returning home from a flood, click here: www.epa.gov/naturalevents/returnhomeadvisory.htm.
-- UPDATE TO STORY --
After Friday night's story aired, CDPHE updated its flood cleanup guidance to provide further clarification on how property owners should handle and dispose asbestos containing materials.
Among the highlights are distinguishing guidance for two types of materials:
-Tier 1- debris that has become separated from the structure.
-Tier 2- materials that are in tact or damaged, but still associated with the structure.
- Waives requirement for a certified asbestos inspector to have a Colorado license, enabling more personnel to come in from out of state to assist.
- Acknowledges that federal requirements from OSHA and DOT still apply, which protects worker health & safety, and the general public via transporting hazardous materials.