Firefighters and Asbestos Exposure
Firefighting is one of the world’s riskiest occupations. Firefighters risk their health daily to control all kinds of combustible situations. They have no idea what they’ll encounter when they start their shifts.
Firefighters might be called to a residential fire, a commercial complex or an industrial site. Each location has individual hazards, but the most common material presenting long-term health risks to firefighters is asbestos.
Firefighters are able to stop many fires before they cause extensive damage, but some extremely dangerous fires lead to total building collapse. Fires of any severity level can release asbestos into the atmosphere, exposing firefighters to the toxic fibers.
How Firefighters Were Exposed to Asbestos
Firefighters are exposed to every material used to construct the buildings they extinguish. Many older structures built before the 1980s contain a wide range of asbestos-based construction products.
Installed asbestos building products are usually stable when left untouched. However, fire damages these materials, allowing asbestos to become airborne in smoke and debris.
Unless using a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) with a high-efficiency particulate air filter (HEPA), every firefighter exposed to asbestos would inhale these microscopic particles.
Firefighters today wear protective gear to keep them safe from asbestos and other toxic materials on the job. But in the past, the dangers of asbestos exposure were not widely known.
Firefighters risked inhaling asbestos when they responded to fires without adequate protective equipment.
Asbestos exposure didn’t stop at the fire scene. Firefighters contaminated with asbestos would transport the fibers back to the fire hall on their clothes, vehicles, and equipment.
Since no one knew that asbestos was dangerous, no efforts were taken to prevent secondary exposure. Every firefighter support worker was exposed to the same asbestos fibers.
Additionally, asbestos was used in many fire hall building products, fire truck parts, and protective equipment. Earlier firefighters wore fire- and heat-retardant clothing that contained asbestos. Asbestos was even used in fire engine brakes, clutches, gaskets, and water hoses.