Firefighters and Asbestos
Firefighters encounter a variety of occupational hazards each day. Whether they are climbing tall ladders to rescue citizens from burning buildings or battling the heat of an intense fire, there is no shortage of dangerous situations for a firefighter. What they may not consider, however, are the dangerous health risks associated with asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a toxic mineral that was widely used in construction materials such as insulation, acoustical plaster, and roofing tiles. Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer that affects the lining of the body’s internal organs and has no cure.
Asbestos is a highly dangerous toxin, as it can be inhaled unknowingly. If asbestos-containing materials are damaged by the severe heat from a fire, the extremely tiny asbestos fibers may become airborne, putting firefighters at risk for inhalation. If inhaled, asbestos fibers, which have a claw-like composition, can cling to the lining of the body’s internal organs for decades before the individual may begin to suffer from mesothelioma symptoms.
It is imperative that firefighters understand how to protect themselves from exposure to asbestos while on the job. All firefighters should wear proper safety equipment, including a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) approved self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA, at all times during and after a fire. This may seem obvious, as firefighters are diligent about wearing their SCBA during the extinguishment phase of a fire. However, many firefighters may remove their SCBA after the fire is out, putting themselves at great risk of asbestos inhalation, as the fibers may continue to be released from rubble and debris.
In addition, firefighters must be very cautious to remove all protective outerwear, including jackets, pants, boots, eyewear, and gloves before leaving the site of a fire to prevent the transfer of errant asbestos fibers from one location to another.
Firefighters are not only at risk during and after they battle a fire. The majority of firehouses in the United States are older structures built well before 1980, when asbestos-related regulations were first implemented. These firehouses may be harboring dangerously high levels of asbestos in the form of insulation or other structural materials.
It is crucial that firefighters take the necessary safety precautions in order to decrease their chances of asbestos inhalation, thus reducing the likelihood that they will one day be diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Last modified: December 09, 2009.