Mountains of Waste Left by Kentucky Tornadoes May Pose Hazards 'Damaging to Human Health'

The mountain of waste and debris left behind by the swarm of tornadoes that ripped through Kentucky over the past weekend could pose hazards "that could be damaging to human health" for residents and those involved in the cleanup process.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear previously described the debris left behind by the tornadoes as a "mountain of waste," and drone videos showed dozens of flattened homes and buildings following the storm. Several tornadoes ripped through Kentucky over the past weekend, leaving over 70 dead and dozens of others unaccounted for.

Dr. Erin Haynes, deputy director of the University of Kentucky Center for Appalachian Research in Environmental Sciences (CARES), made similar comments while speaking with Newsweek. She explained that the debris left behind contains a "mix of chemicals and particulates that could be damaging to human health."

"There may be a lot of dust generated during the cleanup and those dust particles would be from the composition of the buildings, which could contain lead if they're old buildings, asbestos and other hazardous substances," Haynes said. "So it would be recommended that those working on the site take great care and caution to protect themselves from airborne particulates."

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

"Asbestos can go into the lung and lead is a known neurotoxin," Haynes said. "So we want to avoid exposure to those."

"Lead and asbestos are two well-known hazards that would be common from all old buildings," she continued. "But there are known hazards in homes and buildings and manufacturing companies. All of those chemicals are now available for exposure."

On Tuesday, AccuWeather Chief Meteorologist Jonathan Porter told Newsweek that "additional injuries and sometimes fatalities" are often seen "in the aftermath of a storm like this, as it relates to the cleanup."

"In some places, you actually have risks that may be are short-term and long-term health issues," Porter said. "In some cases, there's debris that may have chemicals that have spilled. We've seen that in some of the manufacturing facilities that were struck, where there's chemicals that have spilled out along with it that can be a problem from an exposure perspective."

"There's a risk that some older buildings might have asbestos or other dangerous materials that were covered up and are now open because they've been blown around in all kinds of different ways," Porter continued.

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

Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association explained to Newsweek that the tornadoes' destruction allowed for "environmental toxins" to be released throughout the community.

"Think of all the stuff 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 seeps into the ground and can get into the drinking water," Benjamin said.

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

"Lots of stress, depression," Benjamin said. "People in most of these homes lost absolutely everything and they're trying to figure out how they're going to survive. There is a higher risk of suicide."

"You also have to worry about public officials because, interestingly enough, they've often lost everything as well and then they have to go out and put on a face that says they're dealing and be strong for everyone else," Benjamin continued.

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

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