Possible Asbestos in Puerto Rico’s Drinking Water After Hurricanes

Illustration of potential asbestos exposure in a building

Now that Hurricanes Maria and Irma have swept through Puerto Rico, a wide range of health concerns are beginning to pop up. One of those: the potential for asbestos in the drinking water.

Health officials have ordered testing for a wide variety of dangerous substances in the U.S. territory’s drinking water. Natural disasters, like hurricanes, can cause asbestos exposure as the hazardous substance is found in old buildings, homes, and schools.

Hurricanes often result in structural damage, or even demolishing of buildings, and release asbestos fibers into the air. Residents and first responders may be at risk of exposure, however, the fibers can remain in the air for long periods of time.

It will be important for the people of Puerto Rico to limit asbestos exposure by not disturbing any materials or construction debris. If helping with cleanup, residents should follow Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, including wetting the materials being removed and keeping all waste materials in a leak-proof, sealed bag to prevent any spilling or escape of material.

Also, one should be fully covered with pants, a long-sleeve shirt, gloves, goggles, and a tightly fitted and approved respirator. After use, clothes should be properly contained and discarded.

Puerto Rico is even more of a concern because the islands have a total of 18 Superfund sites, and many are located in areas with porous rock. This geological formation makes it easier for hazardous chemicals to migrate after flooding. Therefore, the toxins could make it into the country’s water supply.

According to President Harry Pena of Zimmetry Environmental, “Even without the presence of Superfund sites, flooding, storm surge, and damage or broken wells, water storage facilities and basic plumbing issues have created water quality concerns for many who are fortunate enough to even have water coming out of their faucets.”

Puerto Rico isn’t the only place with asbestos water concerns. The wildfires in Northern California have caused worry as well. With rain in the area’s forecast, officials are concerned that asbestos could runoff into streams, rivers, and eventually the drinking water supply.

Sonoma County alone has 617 streams that pass through the burn zones. Most of the streams flow into the Russian River, which is the primary drinking water supply for Sonoma and Marin counties in California, serving hundreds of thousands of people. It’s also home to fish and wildlife.