The Christchurch Earthquake and it's Asbestos Aftermath

Friday 9 March 2018, 11:03AM

By Zach White


On February the 22nd we passed the 7 year anniversary of the Christchurch earthquake which rocked the nation and took the lives of 185 people. The damage from this natural disaster is still relevant now as we still face the massive rebuild ahead and the lasting damage it’s had on so many Cantabrians. The emotional damage from such a great loss has taken it’s toll, but the health of so many people was jeopardised. There were the 1500-2000 injuries that happened when the quake struck but there has also been a hazard looming with the rebuild, Asbestos.

Photographs taken at the time of the disaster showed a thick layer of dust looming over the city. The led to health officials having to spread the warnings of asbestos risks. Asbestos is a known carcinogen that can cause mesothelioma or asbestosis, both of which are fatal lung diseases. Originally used as a building material for the majority of the 20th century it was praised for being fire proof among other benefits to construction.  So with the collapse of many buildings it was likely to have released asbestos fibres into the air putting people at risk of inhalation. With this just being the initial fear of how asbestos might affect the people of Christchurch, the rebuild had to face this problem too. The Earthquake Commission estimated that about 43,000 Christchurch homes that were due for quake repairs could have an asbestos problem. Since then in about 10% of these cases, undamaged asbestos in ceilings has been encased behind plasterboard rather than being removed which should be ideally done for the safety of any future residents. Asbestos removal should not be carried by just anyone though, it’s needs to be carried out by a licensed company or technician who can safely dispose of the fibres without further risk of air contamination. Though we do not have technicians based in Christchurch yet, Chemcare is a licensed company and can provide a removal across the majority of the North Island.

In 2012, 61 Cantabrians put their names on the asbestos exposure register, which is 46 more than the year before. There could be an unknown number of people who were exposed to asbestos in the region, but there is discussion over how much exposure is dangerous and could lead to which disease. The amount of properties that were fully effected by the earthquake was 320 demolition sites that were deemed hazardous because of asbestos removal. Those properties compared to others that did not have the risk of asbestos lead to a more careful demolition process. As stated before the amount of homes across Christchurch that were at risk was quite high. So when it comes to repairs on these properties it is crucial that the presence of building materials that could contain asbestos is identified. You will need a certified asbestos contractor like Chemcare to successfully identify and collect a sample rather than any random independent. If it is identified as asbestos, a sample would need to be sent away to an IANZ accredited laboratory. If the test confirms that the damaged building contains asbestos, the repair strategy will follow the Health and Safety at Work (Asbestos) Regulations 2016 and the Worksafe NZ management and removal of Asbestos Approved Code of Practice.

However, New Zealand is not the first country to face issues surrounding the risks of asbestos from earthquakes. The San Francisco earthquake in 1989 prompted the United States Environmental Protection Agency to develop its first guidelines two years after this natural disaster for catastrophic emergency situations involving asbestos. Another situation related to the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan led to a rubble collector becoming the first to gain worker’s compensation in 2009 for developing mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos while cleaning up debris. And though it wasn’t an earthquake, the World Trade Centre collapse after the events of 9/11 led to lots of health issues of the first responders. But it’s hard to compare this to earthquakes as the disasters are so different.

The best response to take when dealing with something that could potentially be asbestos, is absolute care. Chemcare has not made it to the South Island yet but is readily available across the North Island especially in the major centres including Auckland, Hamilton, and Wellington. Our team has the correct certification and licensing to carry out any sized asbestos removal job and have the experience to carry it out effectively. If another natural disaster was to strike we hope that the public is educated on the topic of asbestos risks to minimise the amount of people who may suffer from the terrible diseases that come with exposure.