As crowds of people watched rescuers tear apart a collapsed northern Ontario mall in the search for survivors, a deadly substance may have risen from the dust stirred up by the demolition.
Asbestos-laced materials used in the construction of the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, Ont. could have been dispersed through the air after a parking deck crashed through the building and killed two women on June 23.
A 2005 report obtained by Global News details an environmental assessment done six years before. It showed that asbestos-containing materials were found in parging cement and ceiling tiles of the mall. Parging cement is typically used to waterproof outer walls.
The consultants also suspected the roof drain lines and vinyl floor tiles contained asbestos. The exact locations of the dangerous materials were not identified in the report.
The 2005 report was done by Trow Associates Inc. in Sudbury, Ont. for Sobey’s, a tenant of the mall. It was given to the grocer and to NorDev, a branch of Elliot Lake Retirement Living, the former mall owner.
Trow advises the asbestos materials “do not pose a risk” as long as they are in use and in good condition.
But their report suggests the risk level from asbestos increased when the parking deck fell on June 23 and rescuers moved in with heavy equipment to demolish the rubble in order to free people trapped below.
“Once asbestos-containing materials are disturbed, asbestos fibres may be airborne and pose health concerns,” the report read.
David Jenkins was in the mall when the parking deck collapsed. As he struggled to escape, Jenkins said he breathed in plumes of dust that left a gritty taste on his tongue.
“I was very scared, I felt like a shortness of breath and just very heavy, my lungs were heavy. I did breathe in a lot of dust,” he said.
Jenkins said he went to the hospital immediately, got a chest X-ray and was put on a puffer. He’s now worried about what the long-term effects could be.
“After that incidence happened I started to cough and my cough was really phlegm, phlegmy and gritty. It was really thick and it’s wasn’t that thick before,” he said.
While Jenkins was inside the building, others gathered around the wreckage to watch the rescue efforts. By the time rescue workers brought in a crane to move debris, most of the town was within 30 metres of the site.
“I’m not aware of the (asbestos) and I’m not sure if any of the rescuers would have been aware of that either,” said Elliot Lake mayor Rick Hamilton.
He added if he had known, perhaps different precautions could have been taken when the crane came in.
Trow’s report doesn’t specify exactly where and how much asbestos is in the mall.
“They’re risking their lives potentially already as it is, then to put this airborne hazard in front of them, it’s something that really (rescuers) should have been presented with this information,” said Paul Correia, a third-party asbestos expert at Assurance Environmental.
Global News asked Correia to look at the reports and review video of the rescue efforts to help assess the risk of asbestos.
“I understand the number one priority is trying to get in there and save people and doing what they could. In those situations we forgo safety and just get in there, but as an afterthought, I’d be slightly concerned (about asbestos),” he said.
Asbestos, a strong and fibrous material, was a common building material during the era the mall was constructed and was widely used in insulations, fire-proofing material, cement, floor and ceiling tiles.
But in the early 1980s, health reports began to link the inhalation of asbestos to serious conditions including lung cancer, a scarring of the lungs called asbestosis and a rare chest cancer called mesothelioma.
Correia said anyone working at the site should be outfitted with a proper respirator to defend against any possible asbestos.
Footage of the demolition shows some members of Toronto’s Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team wearing purple masks associated with asbestos protection. Others working the site are shown wearing thin, white dust masks.
The rescue team has not yet responded to Global News’ questions about what types of safety equipment they were wearing or whether they knew the building contained asbestos.
The rescuers weren’t the only ones close to the site of the collapse. For hours, the friends, family and neighbours of victims waited at the mall, hoping to see their loved ones emerge alive.
While rescue workers likely exposed to the most risk, onlookers could have also been in danger, according to asbestos expert Dr. Jean Zigby.
“The good news is that a very short-term exposure is much less harmful than the chronic exposures that are more often associated with chronic disease,” said the president of the Canadian Association of Physicians.
“However, because even short-term exposure to a high concentration of asbestos can lead to disease it is still very, very unfortunate if there were individuals who were uninformed and exposed to asbestos dust being released secondary to the demolition.”
As the town’s attention turns to the cleanup efforts, the mayor said he would ensure people know the risks.
“I’ll make sure that anybody who has access to that property who is exposed to that is made aware of it,” Hamilton said.
The consultants who wrote the report in 2005 recommended any demolition work for the purpose of renovation should be done in accordance with regulations and guidelines.
Ontario law requires a warning to be issued to anyone working with asbestos-laden materials. It also requires protective measures like isolation, signage, protective equipment and decontamination facilities depending on level of risk.
Corriea said the clean-up efforts should be contained in a big enclosure, crews should wear respirators and the waste should be taken to a separate landfill.