The sight of the long-abandoned military hospital burning near the intersection of Marina Village Parkway and Mariner Square loop in Alameda, California last week was cause for concern for Alameda residents. The hospital had been vacant for more than 30 years and had been slated for demolition. Firefighters, concerned with the thick smoke emanating from the building, asked nearby residents to shelter in place and to stay inside. Residents, complaining about ash falling in their yards, expressed their concern about exposure to potential hazards from toxins in the burning building.
Is this a legitimate concern? What are the health effects from substances such as asbestos released during fires?
As expected, there are both acute, immediate effects, and long-term effects. A rise in any fine particulate matter in a community’s air contributes to respiratory symptoms, particularly among children, the elderly, and those with respiratory impairments. And since asbestos doesn’t readily burn, any asbestos fibers in the destroyed building can get into the air and be widely distributed by air currents, slowly settling out over days or weeks and landing far from the original source, where they can be kicked back up into the air by cars, pedestrians, wind currents, etc. The effects of this have been studied in depth in the years following the attacks on the World Trade Center. A 2004 study by Landrigan and others at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine Selikoff Center for Environmental Sciences showed significant adverse health effects, not only in first responders, but in nearby community residents. Increased and persistent cough, bronchial hyperactivity, and asthma have plagued many in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Long-term consequences are still being studied, and of course we know that asbestos exposure can take decades to produce disease. So, while we cannot be certain, we should be worried enough to take precautions!