Dealing with Debris and Damaged Buildings

emergency-disaster-clean-upDisaster debris planning – Sometimes local governments must respond to disasters that destroy large numbers of homes or buildings. They may need to demolish partially destroyed homes and manage disaster debris. If your community does not have a disaster debris management plan, they may want to consider developing one. Cleanup activities related to returning to homes and businesses after a disaster can pose significant health and environmental challenges. People can be exposed to potentially life-threatening hazards from leaking natural gas lines, and carbon monoxide poisoning from using un-vented fuel-burning equipment indoors. During a flood cleanup, failure to remove contaminated materials and reduce moisture and humidity may present serious long-term health risks from micro-organisms, such as bacteria and mold.

General cautions when re-entering damaged homes and buildings

When citizens are authorized by local authorities to return to their homes and businesses, federal authorities urge people to take the following precautions :

Be on the alert for leaking containers and reactive household chemicals, such as caustic drain cleaners or chlorine bleach. Take the following necessary precautions to prevent injury or further damage:

  • Keep children and pets safe. Keep them away from flood water, wet or damaged materials, and leaking or spilled chemicals.
  • Avoid contact with flood water in and around homes. Assume flood water is contaminated with raw sewage or hazardous chemicals.
  • Do not combine chemicals from leaking or damaged containers as this may produce dangerous or violent reactions. Clean up and discard chemicals separately, even if you konw what they are.
  • Do not dump chemicals down drains, storm sewers, or toilets.
  • Do not try to burn household chemicals.
  • Clearly mark and set aside unbroken containers until they can be properly disposed of
  • Leave damaged or unlabeled chemical containers undisturbed whenever possible.
  • Do not turn on drinking water or well water pumps (risk of electric shock) or use the septic system until you can have it inspected.

Use caution when disturbing building materials to prevent physical injury or other health effects. Building materials may contain hazardous materials such as asbestos that when carried by the air can be breathed in and cause adverse health effects. If you suspect asbestos-containing materials may be present, the materials should not be disturbed. Asbestos-containing materials can include the following:

  • boiler/pipe insulation
  • fireproofing
  • floor tiles
  • asbestos roofing
  • transite boards used in laboratory tabletops and in acoustics in auditoriums, music rooms and phone booths

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Federal, state and local personnel are often deployed to affected areas to establish debris-management programs, including household hazardous waste collection and disposal programs. These efforts may take days or weeks to come to all communities. In the meantime, EPA urges the public to exercise caution and report concerns to local environmental, health and waste disposal authorities.

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Avoid carbon monoxide poisoning

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas that is produced when any fuel is burned and that can kill you.

  • ALERT: Generator exhaust is toxic. Always put generators outside well away from doors, windows, crawlspaces, orand vents. Never use a generator inside homes, garages, crawl spaces, sheds, or similar areas. Carbon monoxide (CO) is deadly, can build up quickly, and linger for hours. More information about the dangers of carbon monoxide.
  • Never use fuel-burning devices in homes, garages, in any other confined space such as attics or crawl spaces, or within 10 ft. of windows, doors or other air intakes. For example:  gasoline-powered generators, gasoline-powered pressure washers, camp stoves and lanterns, or charcoal grills. Opening doors and windows or using fans will not prevent CO buildup in the home.
  • If you start to feel sick, dizzy, or weak while using a generator, get away to fresh air right away.
  • Listen: Public Service Announcement about carbon monoxide
  • en español: Proteja su vida y la de su familia: Evite el envenenamiento con monóxido de carbono (español) – conozca los síntomas del envenenamiento con monóxido de carbono. | Más: Tormentas de nieve y hielo

Read more: Carbon monoxide poisoning after a disaster, from

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Avoid problems from mold, bacteria, or insects

Standing water is a breeding ground for a wide range of micro-organisms and insects, such as mosquitoes. Mosquitoes can spread diseases such as West Nile Virus. Micro-organisms, including bacteria or mold, can become airborne and be inhaled. Where floodwater might be contaminated, infectious disease is of concern.

  • Remove standing water as quickly as possible.
  • Remove wet materials and discard those that cannot be thoroughly cleaned and dried, ideally within 48 hours.Virtually all building contents made of paper, cloth, wood, or other absorbent materials that have been wet for 48 hours or more may need to be discarded, as they will likely remain a source of mold growth.
  • Dry out the building. Completely drying out a building that has been immersed in contaminated flood waters will take time and may require the extensive removal of ceiling, wall, insulation, flooring and other materials as well as, in some cases, extensive disinfection. The growth of micro-organisms will continue as long as materials remain wet and humidity is high.
  • Reduce your exposure to air and water contaminants. Limit contact with flood water, including touching, wading, or inhaling water vapors. Wear protective clothing if necessary.

More about mold safety, cleanup, and health.

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Avoid problems from the use of cleaners, disinfectants, and pesticides

Disinfectants, sanitizers, and other pesticides can contain toxic and potentially hazardous substances.

  • Read and follow all label instructions carefully.
  • Do not mix cleaners and disinfectants or use them together. Combinations of some types of substances can be deadly.
  • Keep all household products locked, out of sight, and out of reach of children.
  • Call the Poison Control Center at 800-222-1222 immediately in cast of poisoning.

Read more: Steps to reduce exposure to volatile chemicals.

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Avoid problems from airborne asbestos and lead dust

Elevated concentrations of airborne asbestos can occur if asbestos-containing materials present in many older homes are disturbed. Pipe or other insulation, ceiling tiles, exterior siding, roof shingles and sprayed on-soundproofing are just some of the materials found in older buildings that may contain asbestos. Buildings constructed before 1970 are more likely to contain asbestos. Airborne asbestos can cause lung cancer and mesothelioma, a cancer of the chest and abdominal linings.

Lead is a highly toxic metal which produces a range of adverse health effects, particularly in young children. Many homes built before 1978 may contain lead-based paint. Disturbance or removal of materials containing lead-based paint may result in elevated concentrations of lead dust in the air.

If you know or suspect that your home contains asbestos or lead-based paint and any of these materials have been damaged or will otherwise be disturbed during cleanup, seek the assistance of public health authorities and try to obtain help from specially trained contractors, if available.

Individuals and homeowners

Business, facilities, or communities

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Properly dispose of waste

Use caution to assure that all waste materials are removed and disposed of properly. Open burning of materials by individuals should be avoided, and may be illegal in your area. Improperly controlled burning of materials not only represents significant fire hazards but can also produce additional hazards from the vapors, smoke, and residue that are produced from the burning.

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Guidance for Structurally Unsound Buildings


EPA’s guidance has been requested on the demolition of structurally unsound buildings . Various federal regulations apply to building demolition activities. Areas of primary federal concern include asbestos demolition requirements, the proper disposal of electrical equipment containing PCBs (i.e., distribution transformers and capacitors) and storage tanks. EPA recognizes the difficult circumstances faced in demolishing structurally unsound buildings may make full compliance difficult. However, in any event, you should take the actions set forth below to the extent feasible.

Efforts to restore the damaged areas to their pre-disaster condition often involve removing or repairing damaged structures. There may be a natural tendency at this stage to overlook certain hazards, such as asbestos, that are not immediately life threatening. However, such hazards are serious and may manifest themselves many years from the time of exposure and should be taken into consideration. Given the health hazards associated with asbestos, PCBs, lead, and other harmful substances, it is reasonable that adequate measures be taken during emergency situations to minimize exposure to such materials from the demolition of buildings.

The following guidelines are provided to help minimize the health, safety and environmental risks associated with the demolition of structurally unsound buildings (structures that remain standing but are in danger of imminent collapse). In the case of such buildings it would be unsafe to enter or inspect a structure to determine the amount, types, and location of building materials containing asbestos, PCBs, lead, or other harmful substances. This guidance does not apply to the demolition of hurricane damaged but structurally sound buildings.

To the extent feasible, efforts should be made to perform the following steps:

Underground Storage Tanks and Above Ground Storage Tanks

Releases of petroleum or hazardous substances from underground storage tanks (USTs) and above-ground storage tanks (ASTs) present significant health, safety and environmental concerns and thus should always be addressed with care. If, for example, gasoline pumps, pump station islands or vent pipes are present near a damaged building, or if an unknown tank or cylinder is discovered, halt all demolition activities, seal off the area and call the state environmental agency.


Federal asbestos regulations do not apply to the demolition of structurally unsound buildings by private individuals who contract directly with the demolition contractor for the demolition of a residential building they own having four or fewer units. However, EPA strongly recommends, for health reasons, that anyone conducting demolition activities follow this guidance.

Identifying Asbestos Containing Materials

  • Asbestos-containing products, which may be part of this debris, include: asbestos-cement corrugated sheet, asbestos-cement flat sheet, asbestos pipeline wrap, roofing felt, vinyl-asbestos floor tile, asbestos-cement shingle, millboard, asbestos-cement pipe, and vermiculite-attic insulation.
  • All structures (both residential and commercial) built before 1975 may contain significant amounts of asbestos. In particular large structures built before 1975 typically contain asbestos pipe wrap, siding, ceiling tiles, and other building materials high in asbestos content. Additionally, structures built after 1975 may also contain asbestos.

Notification and Expertise

  • Persons conducting demolitions should notify the appropriate state/local air quality management program as early as possible prior to the start of the demolition, but in any event, no later than the following workday after starting the demolition.
  • At least one person, either a government official or private contractor, trained in the asbestos NESHAP regulations should be on site or available by cell phone during the demolition to provide assistance and guidance.


  • In all instances, workers should use equipment specifically designed to protect them from asbestos exposures during demolition and handling of debris, especially respirators, as required under OSHA.
  • Heavy equipment that is used to demolish structures or that is run over debris from the hurricane will rupture the building materials and may cause asbestos to be released. Therefore, it is very important to wet the structure before demolition and keep the structure wet during demolition. Wetting the structure is crucial because it reduces the potential for air migration of asbestos.
  • EPA recommends knocking down each structure wall-by-wall, folding it in on itself to minimize excess breakage of asbestos containing material.
  • Keep the debris wetted and covered until it is possible to consult with the asbestos trained person to segregate out asbestos containing material to the extent feasible. If asbestos is known to be present but can not be safely segregated, dispose of all the debris as if it is asbestos containing materials as discussed below.

Removal of Asbestos-Containing Material

  • After you have collapsed the structure, if feasible, place the asbestos containing material into leak proof wrapping. If the volume of the material precludes use of leak proof wrapping, continue to wet the asbestos containing material and use heavy lifting equipment to place the asbestos containing material into waiting dump trucks. Whenever possible, use a plastic liner in the bottom of the bed of the dump truck to minimize the leakage of contaminated water from the dump truck. If the asbestos containing material has been further broken up during the loading process, wet it down again after you load it into the dump truck.
  • Cover the dump truck with a tarp, sealing it so that debris and dust can not be released during transport.
  • Placard (with a large sign) the dump trucks as they are being loaded and unloaded with asbestos-containing building materials. The placard should read:
“Warning: Asbestos Hazard. Stay Away”

Disposal of Asbestos Containing Material

  • Truck the debris to a landfill allowed to receive asbestos. Contact state authorities for a list of asbestos approved landfills.
  • Maintain your waste shipment records.

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)

The original guidance for PCBs has been superseded by “Guidance for Addressing Spills from Electrical Equipment“.

Other Hazardous Materials

If other hazardous or unknown materials, such as lead, non-liquid PCBs, solvents, pesticides, herbicides, varnishes, pool chemicals, industrial grade cleaning solutions, etc., are discovered during demolition, please immediately contact the state environmental agency for further guidance on the management of that material.

Disposal of Construction Debris

Other debris created by the demolition of structurally unsound buildings that do not contain asbestos, PCBs, lead, and other harmful substances, should be disposed of in an appropriate landfill or burned pursuant to the Emergency Hurricane Debris Burning Guidance issued by EPA. These guidelines do not supersede emergency orders which may be issued.

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Guidance for Addressing Spills from Electrical Equipment


(EPA is providing the following guidance for addressing spills from electrical equipment damaged by Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Rita, but much of the information is still useful.)

Areas of primary federal concern include the proper disposal of electrical equipment containing PCBs (i.e., distribution transformers and capacitors). EPA recognizes that individuals, contractors or others involved in removing electrical equipment or utilities restoring electrical service face difficult circumstances that may impede full compliance. However, in any event, you should take the actions set forth below to the extent feasible.

Efforts to restore the damaged areas to their pre-disaster condition often involve removing or repairing damaged electrical equipment. There may be a natural tendency at this stage to overlook certain hazards, such as those associated with PCBs, that are not immediately life threatening. However, such hazards are serious and may manifest themselves many years from the time of exposure and should be taken into consideration. Given the health hazards associated with PCBs, adequate measures should be taken during emergency situations to minimize exposure.

To the extent feasible, efforts should be made to perform the following steps:

Identifying Downed Electrical Equipment Which May Contain PCBs

Caution! Downed electrical equipment including transformers may still be energized which could cause injury. De-energized capacitors and batteries may still contain a charge.

Downed electrical equipment may contain PCBs

  • Generally, transformers that were mounted on utility poles are liquid filled and some may contain PCBs.
  • In the absence of identifying information, it is best to assume a transformer may contain PCBs. To screen transformers for the presence of PCBs, you can use a field screening test kit. A positive test indicates the potential presence of PCBs. A negative test indicates no presence of PCBs.
  • The location of the downed equipment should be identified using e.g., GPS, some kind of visual marker along with a log book with descriptive locations, etc., because this will help you address future clean-up of any spill associated with the downed equipment.

Handling the Electrical Equipment

  • If the electrical equipment is intact, it can be stored for reuse, preferably in a clean, dry area.
  • If the electrical equipment has a small leak that can be controlled so that no additional liquid leaks from the unit, it can be stored for repair and reuse after controlling the leak, preferably in a clean, dry area.
  • Intact electrical equipment and equipment that has small leaks that have been controlled can then be shipped without a manifest to a repair facility for evaluation and repair.
  • If the electrical equipment has significant leaks, any remaining liquid should be drained into a non-leaking container. If the field screening test kit indicates the liquid contains PCBs, the container should be labeled with the PCB M L as containing PCB liquids, and ultimately sent to a chemical or hazardous waste incinerator for disposal. The drained electrical equipment carcass should be disposed properly.

If containers with drained liquids must be stored temporarily, they should be placed on hard surface areas, such as a concrete or asphalt parking lot for no more than 90 days.

  • If the leaking electrical equipment cannot be drained, the electrical equipment should be placed in shipping containers, or covered roll-offs with a poly liner or sorbent material to prevent further spread of the spill, intermodal containers with a poly liner or sorbent material to prevent further spread of the spill, or other weather-tight containers.

If these containers must be stored temporarily, they should be placed on hard surface areas, such as a concrete or asphalt parking lot, for no more than 9 0 days

  • Electrical equipment from parties unable to manage their equipment may be consolidated at electrical utility-owned locations or other temporary storage or staging areas.

Handling the Spill

  • Where possible, temporary measures should be implemented to prevent, treat, or contain further releases or mitigate migration to the environment of PCBs.
  • Where possible, the location of the spill should be identified to determine if it correlates with downed equipment. Where possible, the boundaries of the spill area should be identified with paint or flags to facilitate future clean-up. Generally, after the equipment has been sent to the repair facility, the presence and concentration of PCBs in the equipment is determined. This information can be used to address the spill. If the PCB concentration in the equipment was greater than 50 ppm, you should clean-up the spill.
  • All soil with visible traces of the spill should be excavated and placed in weather-tight containers, such as a covered and lined roll-off or intermodal container.

If these containers must be stored temporarily, they should be placed on hard surface areas, such as a concrete or an asphalt parking lot for no more than 90 days.

  • The excavated material should be disposed in a TSCA or hazardous waste landfill.
  • If the spill is the result of an empty or leaking piece of equipment which has not been tested, some testing of the soil may be necessary to identify if PCBs are present. If PCBs are present in the excavated material, the waste should be sent to a TSCA or hazardous waste landfill.

For further information, please contact the EPA Regional PCB Coordinator for your area.

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Emergency Hurricane Debris Burning Guidance

EPA’s guidance has been requested on the collection and disposal of debris, including vegetative, structural, and mixed debris. Various federal regulations may apply to portions of such debris, although some federal regulations such as the asbestos demolition NESHAP do not apply to debris from structures already demolished by natural disasters (as opposed to human demolition). We recognize that the extraordinary circumstances you face in removing the debris may make full compliance difficult. However, you should take the actions set forth below to the extent feasible.

The following guidelines are provided to help minimize the health, safety and environmental risks associated with burning hurricane debris.

Good faith efforts should be made to segregate wastes prior to burning. Insofar as conditions allow, segregate the following types of materials and stage them for subsequent appropriate disposal:

  • automotive/marine batteries;
  • pesticide cans;
  • explosives;
  • automotive oils;
  • fuels and fluids;
  • solvents;
  • paint thinners and stripper;
  • compressed gas containers;
  • household white goods (refrigerators, washer/dryers and stoves);
  • asbestos containing materials (asbestos shingles, siding and insulation);
  • PCBs (electrical equipment such as distribution transformers and capacitors);
  • electronics (televisions, radios, stereos, cameras, VCRs, computers, microwaves);
  • tires;
  • shingles;
  • domestic garbage; and
  • preserved woods.

Burning should be conducted by or under the supervision of trained local, state or federal officials or their designees at specifically designated sites in those counties designated as disaster areas. Burning must be done in accordance with all local, state and federal emergency orders. Emergency officials should be notified of the location of burn sites in advance. Regarding location and operation of the burn sites, where feasible:

  • Piles to be burned should be at least 1000 feet from the nearest residence or roadway.
  • Piles should be separated by at least 1000 feet and not be more than 45X45 feet in size.
  • Prevailing winds should be monitored, and burning conducted so that smoke does not create a traffic hazard on roadways or impact nearby citizens.
  • Protective clothing (dust masks or respirators, safety glasses, etc.) should be worn, if available.

Initiative should be taken to keep the local public informed. These guidelines do not supersede emergency orders which may be issued.


Chemical Emergency Preparedness

About Chemical Emergencies

People in chemical protective gear responding to chemical emergencyChemicals are a natural and important part of our environment. Even though we often don’t think about it, we use chemicals every day. Chemicals help keep our food fresh and our bodies clean. They help our plants grow and fuel our cars. And chemicals make it possible for us to live longer, healthier lives. Under certain conditions, chemicals can also be poisonous or have a harmful effect on your health. Some chemicals that are safe, and even helpful in small amounts, can be harmful in larger quantities or under certain conditions.

Chemical accidents do happen, at home and in the community. The American Red Cross wants you to be prepared by following our chemical emergency preparedness recommendations.

How You May Be Exposed to a Chemical

You may be exposed to a chemical in three ways:
  • Breathing the chemical
  • Swallowing contaminated food, water, or medication
  • Touching the chemical, or coming into contact with clothing or things that have touched the chemical
Remember, you may be exposed to chemicals even though you may not be able to see or smell anything unusual.

Chemical Accidents Can Be Prevented

Chemicals are found everywhere – in our kitchens, medicine cabinets, basements, and garages. In fact, most chemical accidents occur in our own homes. And they can be prevented.

Prepare for a Chemical Emergency

American Red CrossHome chemical accidents can result from trying to improve the way a product works by adding one substance to another, not following directions for use of a product, or by improper storage or disposal of a chemical. Fortunately, a few simple precautions can help you avoid many chemical emergencies.
    • Avoid mixing chemicals, even common household products. Some combinations, such as ammonia and bleach, can create toxic gases.
    • Always read and follow the directions when using a new product. Some products should not be used in small, confined spaces to avoid inhaling dangerous vapors. Other products should not be used without gloves and eye protection to help prevent the chemical from touching your body.
    • Store chemical products properly. Non-food products should be stored tightly closed in their original containers so you can always identify the contents of each container and how to properly use the product. Better yet – don’t store chemicals at home. Buy only as much of a chemical as you think you will use. If you have product left over, try to give it to someone who will use it. Or see below for tips on proper disposal.
    • Beware of fire. Never smoke while using household chemicals. Don’t use hair spray, cleaning solutions, paint products, or pesticides near the open flame of an appliance, pilot light, lighted candle, fireplace, wood burning stove, etc. Although you may not be able to see or smell them, vapor particles in the air could catch fire or explode.
    • Clean up any spills immediately with some rags, being careful to protect your eyes and skin. Allow the fumes in the rags to evaporate outdoors in a safe place, then wrap them in a newspaper and place the bundle in a sealed plastic bag. Dispose of these materials with your trash. If you don’t already have one, buy a fire extinguisher that is labeled for A, B, and C class fires and keep it handy.
    • Dispose of unused chemicals properly. Improper disposal can result in harm to yourself or members of your family, accidentally contaminate our local water supply, or harm other people or wildlife.

Many household chemicals can be taken to your local household hazardous waste collection facility. Many facilities accept pesticides, fertilizers, household cleaners, oil-based paints, drain and pool cleaners, antifreeze, and brake fluid. Some products can be recycled, which is better for our environment. If you have questions about how to dispose of a chemical, call the facility or the environmental or recycling agency to learn the proper method of disposal.

Respond During a Chemical Emergency

There are many organizations that help the community in an emergency, such as police, fire, and sheriff departments, the American Red Cross, and government agencies. All of these groups coordinate their activities through the local office of emergency management. In many areas there are local Hazardous Materials (Haz-Mat) Teams, who are trained to respond to chemical accidents.

If an accident involving hazardous materials occurs, you will be notified by the authorities as to what steps to take. You may hear a siren, be called by telephone, or emergency personnel may drive by and give instructions over a loudspeaker. Officials could even come to your door. If you hear a warning signal, you should go indoors and listen to a local Emergency Alert System (EAS) station for emergency instructions from county or state officials.

Important Points to Remember

  • In the event of an emergency, follow the instructions of the authorities carefully. They know best how to protect you and your family. Listen to your emergency broadcast stations on radio and TV.
  • Use your phone only in life-threatening emergencies, and then call the Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222), Emergency Medical Services (EMS), 9-1-1, or the operator immediately.
  • If you are told to “shelter in place”, go inside, close all windows and vents and turn off all fans, heating or cooling systems. Take family members and pets to a safe room, seal windows and doors, and listen to emergency broadcast stations for instructions.
  • If you are told to evacuate immediately, follow your Family Disaster Plan. Take your Family Disaster Supplies Kit. Pack only the bare essentials, such as medications, and leave your home quickly. Follow the traffic route authorities recommend. Don’t take short cuts on the way to the shelter.
  • If you find someone who appears to have been injured from chemical exposure, make sure you are not in danger before administering First Aid.
  • And lastly, remember, the best way to protect yourself and your family is to be prepared.

In Case of Poisoning

The most common home chemical emergencies involve small children eating medicines. Keep all medicines, cosmetics, cleaning products, and other household chemicals out of sight and out of reach of children. Experts in the field of chemical manufacturing suggest that doing so could eliminate up to 75 percent of all poisoning of small children.

If someone in your home does eat or drink a non-food substance, find the container it came out of immediately and take it with you to the phone. Call the Poison Control Center(1-800-222-1222), or Emergency Medical Services (EMS), or 9-1-1, or call the operator and tell them exactly what your child ingested.

Follow their instructions carefully. Please be aware that the First Aid advice found on the container may not be appropriate. So, do not give anything by mouth until you have been advised by medical professionals.