If our content should inspire you to start exploring there are a few safety concerns that you should take into consideration. The safety hazards which abound in the locations which we explore vary according to the nature of each location and its condition.
This page is an attempt to give a comprehensive run-down of the safety issues present, however due to the fact that each location is unique and has its own unique safety hazards we urge that you use common sense. If something seems unsafe for any reason then you should follow your instincts and leave or avoid that area.
Asbestos is a form of silicate minerals which occurs both naturally and in synthetic forms. Asbestos is not one unique compound but in fact comprises several different chemical compounds (metal silicates); one of the most commonly found of this family is called chryosotile (white asbestos – a magnesium silicate) and it forms long flexible fibres making it ideal for weaving into insulation. Asbestos is an excellent insulator of heat and does not rust, making it a popular choice in the past for roofing materials, especially in New Zealand’s salty air. Asbestos insulation will often appear as piles of fine dust on the floor of buildings or in corrugated roofing. The fibres of asbestos become lodged in the lungs and can lead to asbestosis and cancer. Although any exposure to asbestos can cause health problems, it is generally accepted that most cases of asbestosis can be attributed to long-term exposure to these compounds.
Secondly, asbestos is not dangerous if it is just sitting there: the fibres need to be disturbed and become airborne before they can be inhaled.
Nonetheless it is advisable to wear proper respiratory protection when coming into contact with asbestos, or when walking through dusty rooms where airborne asbestos dust may be present. A standard paper dust mask will not protect you from asbestos dust: the asbestos fibres are small enough to pass right through and enter your respiratory tract. You must use a properly rated P100 or N100 respirator which fits your face correctly (it will not work if the air can pass around the sides of your mask). A sufficient mask to meet these requirements is the 3M 6200 series half-face mask with either 3M 2091/2097 or 7093 filters. These can be purchased online or in most safety stores.
Some species of mould can be detrimental to your health, notably some black moulds.
There are several health risks presented by toxic mould. Moulds excrete toxic compounds called mycotoxins which can cause health problems. However mycotoxin related illnesses are generally due to long term day-to-day exposure. Fungal infections are also a possibility which may infect the sinuses, digestive track, lungs or skin. However, most mould is fairly innocuous (albeit disgusting) and health problems can be mitigated by wearing a dust mask (to this effect a paper mask is fine, although a proper respirator is better) and by washing your hands after being exposed to mould before eating..
Pigeon faeces can cause an illness known as pigeon lung, which is a type of pnuemonitis caused by the inhalation of avian proteins in the pigeon excrement. This can be avoided by wearing a dust mask.
Rooftops, stairs, floors, ladders and other areas in, on and around abandoned buildings all present fall hazards. If a floor is damp/rotten you should exercise extreme caution before walking across it. The use of a large stick to probe the floor in front of you can help to test the integrity of the floor before standing on it. Similarly stairs and ladders may be unsafe or rotten so you should always be careful when using them in dilapidated structures.
When traversing rooftops it is advisable to walk where nails are visible in the roofing material as this corresponds to areas where supporting beams are present.
Similarly, you should be vigilant for objects that can fall on you such as rotten beams.
Tetanus and Puncture Wounds
It is a widely held misbelief that tetanus is caused by rusty nails: in reality the rusty metal only provides a porous medium for the bacteria to thrive and a sharp delivery mechanism for it to enter your bloodstream. Even though Tetanus is uncommon, it is still a health concern (it can kill), particularly in abandoned areas. Always wear proper foot protection (sturdy shoes) and gloves to avoid getting cut. Even though you may have been vaccinated as a child it is recommended to get a booster vaccine every 10 years.
Aside from gloves and sturdy shoes, puncture wounds can be avoided by wearing long trousers and a long sleeved shirt/jersey to avoid getting cut when brushing into sharp objects.
If all else fails and you get cut by rusty metal after not having a tetanus booster then get to the doctor as soon as possible, a tetanus vaccine received soon after exposure but prior to the onset of symptoms can still reduce the severity of any infection that may arise.
This is mainly limited to underground locations such as drains and tunnels. The main dangerous gases to watch out for are hydrogen sulphide, methane and carbon monoxide.
Hydrogen sulfide presents as a smell (rotten egg) odor. If you smell this while in a confined underground space it is advisable to leave immediately. Methane can sometimes (although not always) form as white clouds which float in the air. It is odorless and one of the first signs of methane exposure is light-headedness: if you feel light headed then leave immediately. Carbon monoxide is perhaps the most dangerous: it does not form clouds and is colourless and odorless. As with methane, it causes light-headedness and this is cause to leave a location immediately.
It is advisable to carry gas detectors if you are entering areas which are poorly ventilated where these gases might occur.
Another asphyxiation-related danger associated with subterranean exploration is the risk of drowning. Never enter a drain if it is raining or is forecast to rain. If you are in a drain, warning signs for flooding are a sudden change in temperature, water colour (from clear to brown/dirty) and water flow. Another sign of impending flood is a sudden rush of wind caused by the water flowing through the drain displacing the air in front. If you observe any of these changes then leave.
Even though the power is typically disabled in abandoned buildings there is still the potential for live wires to be present, do not touch an exposed wire even if the power seems to be off in the building. Often the power is off or the fuses have blown in some circuits while others remain live.
Of all the hazards present, perhaps the most dangerous and hardest to avoid is running into other people in locations. It is possible that they will not be there with intentions as innocent as your own and may be violent when startled. Try to diffuse any situation that arises by being polite and making sure that they have an escape route. Keep aware of potential escape routes for yourself when entering potentially inhabited environments.
Don’t let these hazards put you off. Everything in life has a risk, and with common sense (and the right gear when required) all of these risks can be mitigated so that you can explore safely.