A basic NIOSH fact sheet on respiratory safety for workers assisting in disaster response.
Q: Can the dust in the air make me ill soon after breathing it?
A: Intense exposures to any type of dust and smoke can cause eye, nose, throat, and lung irritation, triggering coughing and sneezing. These symptoms are usually short-term, protective ways that the body uses to try to remove foreign material. When they persist or are very severe, they may be symptoms of a more serious injury. Such severe reactions usually occur in the first day or so after a high-level exposure and include persistent shortness of breath, rapid breathing, chest pain or tightness, headache, dizziness, or fainting. Individuals with asthma, other lung conditions, or heart disease are generally more vulnerable to the effects of dust and smoke.
Will I have any long-term health effects from breathing smoke or dust?
A: Most dust-induced eye, nose, throat, and lung irritation does not result in long-term health effects. Long-term health effects caused by dust generally occur only after very long periods of exposure (for example, after years of working in a dusty workplace). However, asthma and persistent asthma-like symptoms (wheezing, difficulty breathing) are occasionally caused by exposure to high levels of irritants. Chronic cough, phlegm, and/or shortness of breath can also occasionally occur. If you have these symptoms, you should see a doctor.
Is there asbestos and/or silica in the dust, and what are the long-term
A: The dust in the air is currently being monitored by environmental health officials. It is recommended that those in the affected area wear appropriate respirators to avoid prolonged exposure to any problematic particles such as asbestos or silica. It is important to keep exposure to asbestos or silica to a minimum to avoid potential long-term health effects.
Long-term health effects from silica and asbestos do not appear for many years and even decades, even after relatively high levels of exposure. These effects are dose-related—that is, the risk increases with increasing exposure. They are very unlikely to result from a single, high-level exposure, or from a short period of exposure to lower levels. But there is a potential risk from inhaling these dusts, so until dust sampling measurements can better define the level of asbestos fibers and other dust in the air, the best advice is to avoid or limit dust exposure as much as possible.
Are masks useful for reducing exposure to dust and smoke?
A: Protective dust masks and dust-filtering respirators can keep dust out of the air you inhale. For workers and volunteers working in dusty areas surrounding the devastation, exposure can be reduced by routine use of well-fitted dust masks (such as N-95 or more protective NIOSH-approved respirators available commercially). In areas where airborne asbestos is known or suspected to be present, N/R/P100 particulate filters with elastomeric half-masks are recommended to prevent short and long-term health problems (if you don't know what these are, ask your supervisor). The respirator should fit your face. A poor fit can allow dust to bypass the dust filter, sharply reducing any protection from the mask.
Are masks effective against toxic gas?
A: Dust-filtering masks provide no protection against toxic gas or suffocation from lack of air. Firefighters and other emergency responders with potential for intense exposures often need respirators designed for such special situations. A respirator equipped with a 3-way combination cartridge (organic vapor plus particulate plus acid gas) provides protection from toxic or noxious fumes and gasses from burning materials, decomposing flesh, and sewage line breaks. A supplied air-type respirator must be used in oxygen deficient areas. If you don't know what these devices are, ask your supervisor. Regardless of type, all respirator filters, cartridges, and canisters should be replaced whenever damaged or contaminated, or if breathing becomes difficult while the respirator is being used.
Some rescue and recovery workers have been observed applying a dollop of mentholated or other pungent salve under the nose above the upper lip to overwhelm all other odors. Workers using respirators fit with organic vapor and gas cartridge or a combination cartridge should not do this because odors detected by workers when wearing these respirators alert the user that toxic gases are leaking into the respirator.
What else can I do to avoid breathing the dust?
A: Until the results of dust testing in the area are known, you should avoid inhaling the dust or limit exposure as much as possible. Avoid entering visibly dusty areas if you can. Avoid the use of dry sweeping and other dust-clearing procedures that disturb settled dust and raise it into the air. Dampening settled dust with a fine water mist can markedly reduce the amount of dust that is raised by activity. (Caution: Excessive wetting may create a slip and fall hazard. Slip-resistant shoes or boots may be helpful).
If you have been covered in dust that potentially contains asbestos, change your work clothes to avoid taking the dust into your car or home, where your family might be exposed. It is best to remove your dusty clothing while wearing respiratory protection and then shower completely to remove the asbestos from your skin and hair before changing into fresh clothing to go home or elsewhere. Dusty clothes should be handled without shaking and placed in bags. They should be laundered separately. If possible, you should ideally also vacuum your clothing with a vacuum equipped with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter and wash up before taking a break during work.
What should I do if I think I'm affected from breathing the smoke
A: It is not necessary to visit an emergency room or physician if you are suffering from minor conditions such as eye irritation, coughing, or sneezing. However, if you are having persistent cough, severe eye irritation, or more serious symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain or discomfort, or lightheadedness, you should check with a doctor. This is particularly true for individuals who have had significant exposure (including a confined-space exposure or a facial or nasal burn), as well as for individuals with preexisting lung or heart conditions. If you have heart or lung disease, you should consult your doctor about any additional precautions you should take before helping with the rescue effort.
What else can I do to protect my lungs?
A: Seek guidance from your supervisor. You may find out about how you can be provided with new or better respirators, if warranted. You may also find out about facilities that have been made available for changing clothes and showering.
Finally, because tobacco smoking and exposure to environmental tobacco smoke may worsen the long-term effects of dust inhalation, make plans to stop smoking if you are a smoker. If you can't quit right now, please resolve to quit in the near future.
Where Can I find Other Information?
A: Additional information about occupational safety and health, including information about lung hazards and respiratory protection, can be found at the following websites: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/homepage.html and the http://www.osha.gov.