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What are some of the risks firefighters face from asbestos exposure?

Tim Povtak
Profile Picture of 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.


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Q:What are some of the risks firefighters face from asbestos exposure?
A:

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.


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.


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.


There are other things firefighters have to be careful about when it comes to asbestos. 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 washing must be done. Never, ever bring the gear home before it is properly decontaminated.

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