Q&A: Firefighters and Asbestos
Asbestos exposure risks for firefighters.
Firefighting is a dangerous job, and there are more hazards than one might think. The intense heat, raging flames and choking smoke are obvious hazards. But microscopic asbestos fibers also hang in the air, becoming a toxic danger that no one can see or feel initially. They are every bit as real and just as deadly as the more noticeable dangers.
They are a threat to a firefighter’s future, and vigilance is required.
Question: Why is asbestos a danger to firefighters when it is hardly used today?
Answer: The majority of fires being fought today are in commercial and residential structures built before 1980, which means they are filled with asbestos, which was once a very desirable construction material. Once it starts to burn, it becomes airborne and dangerous. If inhaled or ingested, it means big trouble down the road.
Q: What problems can asbestos cause? You can't even see it.
A: Asbestos can cause a variety of respiratory issues, some of which are life threatening, including mesothelioma, lung cancer or asbestosis. Those tiny fibers can lodge themselves in the lungs, cause scarring and slowly become cancer. It can take 20-40 years before it is diagnosed. Usually by then, it has spread and becomes tough to treat.
Q: Where would asbestos be in a home?
A: Start with the roof. The roof is one of the places where asbestos is still legal to use today. Builders use it in shingles and other roofing materials. In older homes, it is everywhere. Asbestos might be found in the floor tiles, pipe and duct insulation, drywall materials, cement and electrical wire insulation. It is also likely to be found in the plumbing materials.
Q: If asbestos is so dangerous, why was it used so much?
A: It is a great mineral, if you take away the toxicity. It was also extremely inexpensive. Asbestos could resist heat, insulate and strengthen almost everything coated in it. The early fire suits worn by firefighters were made of asbestos, and it protected them. Though, by the mid-70s, people realized how bad it was.
Q: How can a firefighter protect himself from asbestos?
A: Firefighters today normally are equipped with personal protection equipment (PPE) and self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA). This protective system, though, is not infallible. Human error occurs inevitably. There can be problems when the safety gear comes off too quickly, which happens often when the apparent danger of the fire has passed. Since asbestos fibers remain in the air after the fire has been extinguished, leave the SCBA on until leaving the premises.
Q: What other things do firefighters have to be careful about when it comes to asbestos?
A: Firefighters often stay on site to break apart ceilings and open walls to ensure that the sparks are gone and all dangers have passed. They should not remove their gear at this point. Also, protective clothing can become a delayed risk. Since asbestos fibers cling to clothing, the clothing worn must also be handled properly. Specialized vacuuming of the gear and special washings must be done. Never, ever bring the gear home before it is properly decontaminated.
Q: Is there a threat of taking the asbestos home with you?
A: Absolutely, and no amount of asbestos exposure is considered safe. Firefighters should shower at the fire station. The last thing they want is to expose their families to asbestos fibers by accidentally bringing them home. It can cling to clothes, hair and shoes. No one wants to put loved ones at risk.
Q: Is there risk of asbestos exposure for the people who stand across the street to watch a fire?
A: Not a good idea. Those asbestos fibers that go airborne can travel quite a distance, especially with the breeze blowing. This is the reason why firefighters will typically ensure that everyone keeps a good distance.
Q: During a fire, just how dangerous is asbestos to firefighters apart from the actual flames?
A: The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) did an extensive study and found that a firefighter is 2.29 times more likely than those in the general population to develop mesothelioma — a cancer directly related to asbestos inhalation.
Written by Tim Povtak
Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer and journalist with more than three decades of experience. He spent most of his career at the Orlando Sentinel before moving on to AOL. His work also has appeared in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe. He has served as a guest analyst on both television and radio.