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Dealing with Debris and Damaged Buildings

Always call 911 if you are in immediate danger and need emergency help.

Cleanup activities related to returning to homes and businesses after a disaster can pose significant health and environmental challenges. People may be exposed to potentially life-threatening hazards posed by 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 to 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:

EPA urges the public to be on the alert for leaking containers and reactive household chemicals, like caustic drain cleaners and chlorine bleach, and take the following necessary precautions to prevent injury or further damage:

  • Keep children and pets away from leaking or spilled chemicals.
  • Avoid contact with flood water around or in 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.
  • Do not dump chemicals down drains, storm sewers or toilets.
  • Do not attempt 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 pumps (risk of electric shock) or use the septic system until you can have it inspected.

Individuals should exercise 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 it is suspected that asbestos containing materials may be present, they should not be disturbed. Asbestos-containing materials 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

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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Be aware of possible combustible or explosive gases

After a disaster, highly explosive gas vapors may still be present in many buildings. In addition, methane and other explosive gases may accumulate from decaying materials.

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Open all windows when entering a building. If you smell gas or hear the sound of escaping gas

  • Don't smoke, light matches, operate electrical switches, use either cell or conventional telephones, or create any other source of ignition.

  • Leave the building immediately; leaving the door open and any windows that may already be open.

  • Notify emergency authorities. Don't return to the building until you are told by authorities that it is safe to do so.

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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 at high levels.

  • Do not use fuel-burning devices such as gasoline-powered generators, gasoline-powered pressure washers, camp stoves and lanterns, or charcoal grills in homes, garages, or any other confined space such as attics or crawl spaces, or within 10 ft. of windows, doors or other air intakes. Opening doors and windows or using fans will not prevent CO buildup in the home. Have vents and chimneys checked to assure that debris does not block or impede the exhaust from water heaters and gas furnaces.

  • If you start to feel sick, dizzy or weak while using a generator, get to fresh air right away. The CO from generators can readily lead to full incapacitation and death.

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Avoid problems from mold, bacteria and insects

Standing water is a breeding ground for a wide range of micro-organisms and insects, such as mosquitoes. Mosquitoes can spread diseases like West Nile Virus. Micro-organisms, including bacteria and mold, can become airborne and be inhaled. Where floodwater is highly 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. While smooth, hard surface materials such as metal and plastics can often be cleaned effectively, virtually all building contents made of paper, cloth, wood and other absorbent materials that have been wet for longer than 48 hours may need to be discarded as they will likely remain a source of mold growth.

  • Dry out the building. Heavily contaminated flood waters contain micro-organisms and other contaminants that can penetrate deep into soaked, porous materials and later be released into air or water. 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. If a house or building is not dried out properly, a musty odor, signifying growth of micro-organisms, can remain long after the flood. When fumes are not a concern and if electricity is available and safe, closing windows and running a dehumidifier or window air conditioner can be an effective way to remove moisture if the damage is moderate.

  • Reduce your exposure to air and water contaminants. Every effort should be made to limit contact with flood water. This includes the breathing of water vapors or mists formed from the contaminated water; this may occur when water is pumped or sprayed. If removing materials or furnishings already contaminated with mold or when cleaning significant areas of mold contamination or generally disinfecting areas soiled by flood waters, federal authorities recommend limiting your exposure to airborne mold spores by wearing gloves, goggles, and wearing an N-95 respirator, if available, or a dust mask.

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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.

  • Mixing certain types of household cleaners and disinfectants can produce toxic fumes and result in injury and even death. Do not mix them or use them in combination.

  • Read and follow all label instructions carefully.

  • Provide fresh air by opening windows and doors. Remain in a room no longer than necessary. Allow adequate time for the area to air out.

  • If there is no standing water in the building and it is safe to use electricity, use fans both during and after the use of disinfecting, cleaning, and sanitizing products. Be sure that before using any electrical appliances, that they are properly grounded, and where possible, connected to a ground break equipped electrical source.

  • Keep all household products locked, out of sight and out of reach of children. Use child-resistant packaging properly by closing the container securely after each use. Keep items in original containers. Call 1-800-222-1222 immediately in cast of poisoning.

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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.

  • If possible, removed materials should be handled while still wet or damp, double bagged and properly labeled as to contents.

  • In handling materials that are believed to be contaminated with asbestos or lead, EPA recommends that, at a minimum, you wear gloves, goggles, and most importantly, OSHA-approved respiratory protection, if available.

  • While still wearing a mask, wash hands and clothing after handling such materials.

  • If at all possible, avoid activities that will generate dust, such as sweeping or vacuuming debris that may contain asbestos or lead.

  • Take precautions before your contractor or you begin remodeling or renovations that disturb surfaces that may contain lead-based paint (such as scraping off paint or tearing out walls):

  • Have the area tested for lead-based paint.

  • Do not use a belt-sander, propane torch, heat gun, dry scraper, or dry sandpaper to remove lead-based paint. These actions create large amounts of lead dust and potentially harmful fumes.

  • Temporarily move your family (especially children and pregnant women) out of the apartment or house until the work is done and the area is properly cleaned. If you can't move your family, at least completely seal off the work area.

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Properly dispose of waste

Caution must be exercised to assure that all waste materials are removed and disposed of properly. Open burning of materials by individuals should be avoided. 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.

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More Resources on Debris

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For those who have access to the internet, here are links to additional information:

EPA information:

Information from other federal government agencies and from the Red Cross:

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