(KMOV) -- Homeowners and those working among the debris left behind by the Good Friday tornadoes should be careful when handling materials, health officials say.
Asbestos was used in materials to build homes through the 1970s. It can be found in old ceiling and floor materials or insulation. Left undisturbed, the average home is in no danger. But, when tornadoes ripped apart homes, it exposed old building materials. If materials are crushed or mishandled, microscopic fibers can become airborne.
Fibers can cause damage to the respiratory system. In extreme cases, someone exposed to asbestos may suffer lung cancer or scarring of the lungs. Symptoms often take 10-20 years to develop, according to the EPA. The longer someone is exposed, the higher the risks of disease.
You can't tell whether you're handling asbestos, just by looking. Unless the materials are still labeled, only a test can accurately confirm whether asbestos is present.
If in doubt, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources provides a fact sheet with recommendations for those who are handling tornado debris: dnr.mo.gov/pubs/pub2121.pdf
In general, experts recommend limiting exposure to children. Handle any materials carefully and wet debris (with water) to reduce the chances of fibers becoming airborne. Put materials into leak-proof containers and make sure they are disposed of in the appropriate landfills.
Private homes are not covered by the asbestos regulations that apply to businesses, apartments, or schools - according to the St. Louis County Health Department and EPA.
However, health officials recommend working with a licensed asbestos contractor, if you suspect asbestos has been disturbed in the home.
You can find a list here, which includes Missouri and Illinois companies: http://www.dnr.mo.gov/env/apcp/asbestos.htm