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Mountains of trash left by Kentucky tornadoes may pose ‘damaging human health’ risks

The mountain of trash and debris left behind by the tornado swarm that tore through Kentucky over the past weekend could pose risks “that could be detrimental to human health” for residents and those involved in the process of cleaning.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear previously described debris left by tornadoes as a “mountain of trash,” and drone videos showed dozens of homes and buildings flattened after the storm. Several tornadoes tore through Kentucky over the past weekend, leaving more than 70 people dead and dozens more missing.

Dr. Erin Haynes, associate director of the Center for Appalachian Research in Environmental Sciences (CARES) at the University of Kentucky, made similar comments while speaking with Newsweek. She explained that the debris left behind contained a “mixture of chemicals and particles that could be harmful to human health”.

“There can be a lot of dust generated during cleaning and these dust particles would come from the composition of the buildings, which could contain lead if they are old buildings, asbestos and other dangerous substances” , Haynes said. “It would therefore be recommended that people working on the site take great care and protect themselves from airborne particles.”

She also noted that exposure to asbestos and lead could lead to long-term health issues for those involved in the cleanup process.

“Asbestos can enter the lungs and lead is a known neurotoxin,” Haynes said. “So we want to avoid being exposed to those.”

“Lead and asbestos are two well-known hazards that would be common to all old buildings,” she continued. “But there are known hazards in homes, buildings and manufacturing businesses. All of these chemicals are now available for exposure.”

On Tuesday, AccuWeather’s chief meteorologist, Jonathan Porter, said Newsweek that “additional injuries and sometimes fatalities” are often seen “as a result of a storm like this, in regards to cleanup.”

“In some places you actually have risks that can be short-term and long-term health issues,” Porter said. “In some cases there is debris that may have chemicals in it that have been spilled. We’ve seen this in some of the manufacturing facilities that have been hit, where chemicals have been spilled with them, which can be a problem from an exposure point of view.”

“There’s a risk that some older buildings have asbestos or other hazardous materials that have been covered over and are now open because they’ve been blown in all sorts of different ways,” Porter continued.

According to Porter, some of the other hazards associated with the cleaning process include nails, sharp edges as well as live power lines. There are also risks associated with improper use of generators, which could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association explained to Newsweek that the destruction of the tornadoes allowed the release of “environmental toxins” throughout the community.

“Think of everything you have under your kitchen cabinet at home or in your garage. You have pesticides, you have herbicides. All those poisons that are there to kill weeds, etc. All that stuff seep into the ground and can enter drinking water,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin also noted that additional mental health issues could pose a problem for Kentuckians and those involved in the cleanup process.

“A lot of stress, depression,” Benjamin said. “People in most of these homes have lost absolutely everything and they are trying to figure out how they are going to survive. There is a higher risk of suicide.”

“You also have to care about the officials because, interestingly, they often have lost everything as well, and then they have to come out and put a face on that says they’re dealing and they’re strong for everyone,” said continued Benjamin. .

Trash and debris left behind by Kentucky tornadoes could pose further health risks to residents and those involved in the cleanup process. Above is a general view of structures damaged by a tornado on December 11, 2021 in Mayfield, Kentucky.
Brett Carlsen/Getty

Correction 12/16/21, 4:41 PM ET: An earlier version of this story misspelled Dr. Erin Haynes’ name. We regret the error.