Asbestos was once extensively used in construction materials to strengthen roof shingles, concrete, piping, wall boards, floor tiles and compounds and adhesives. Its fibers served to be a durable addition to construction materials and even served as a superb insulator from heat. When asbestos fibers were shown to be the cause of lower lung and respiratory problems in the 1970s, its use became more limited until it was eventually banned from new construction in the United States in the late 1980s. The United Kingdom followed in the late 1990s, although a complete ban wasn’t in place until after the year 2000 throughout Europe. In spite of it being banned from use in new construction for decades, asbestos remains an issue, especially in buildings constructed prior to it being prohibited.
When disturbed by demolition, heat and fire, asbestos becomes a renewed threat. Airborne fibers make it problematic, especially when it comes to those who fight building fires. Here is why asbestos has been, and continues to be a threat, for firefighters.
The history of firefighters and asbestos
Firefighters were some of the first who filed asbestos claims for lung damage due to airborne fibers. Simultaneously, asbestos blankets and protective gear were being used in firefighting equipment. Heat resistant suits made from asbestos were employed by firefighting teams across the globe. At the time, firefighters were not made aware of the dangers of asbestos fibers or supplied with appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The very material that was being used to protect them from heat was also damaging their lungs,
Definitively higher risk
In the United States, research conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 2013 demonstrated the elevated risks for firefighters. The research involved some 30,000 firefighters and found that their cancer risk was significantly higher than that of other occupations. In fact, the research indicated that firefighters got mesothelioma twice as often as the public at-large. This was attributed to exposure to higher levels of asbestos.
Advances in safety equipment
Today, firefighting equipment is far superior to that of decades ago. It is understood that while the greatest risk to the safety of a firefighter is still heat and smoke, there are environmental concerns that need to be addressed. Respirators, for example, are not only more effective and efficient but are used much more frequently than in the past. The problem is, of course, that health problems related to environmental issues rarely show up soon after exposure. As we continue to learn from 9/11, firefighter exposure to airborne debris, dust and asbestos can take years, and even decades to manifest themselves in significant health issues.
Although advances in safety gear have been significant and our understanding of the dangers equally significant, the problem is persistent. Millions of structures remain around the planet containing asbestos. Firefighters are placed in a situation where urgency is a priority, yet precautions are required to protect their short and long-term well-being. Asbestos continues to be a major problem when fighting fires.
How firefighters can better protect themselves
Firefighters can take some simple steps to better protect themselves from exposure to asbestos. These include:
- Wearing self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) when exposed to smoke or fire.
- Keep PPE gear separate from personal clothing and away from home.
- Clean potentially contaminated gear thoroughly.
- Stay safe during routine activities like preparing old buildings for training exercises or even working in older firehouses.
- Stay up-to-date on the latest safety procedures.
- Get regular health screenings.
Knowledge is power
For firefighters who may suspect that they have been exposed to asbestos or are concerned health issues they are experiencing may be asbestos related, knowledge is power. There is an unquestionable link that has been built between exposure to asbestos and the health of firefighters. Government officials and fire departments have an ethical responsibility to their employees in providing a safe work environment. In fact, there are an increasing number of cases being decided in favor of firefighters who have been able to prove negligence on the part of fire departments and government entities.
For firefighters concerned about their situation, help is available from a variety of resources and organizations. If you or someone you care about may have been affected by asbestos as a firefighter, you are far from alone. Seek out the knowledge and help you need to get the resolution you deserve.
For more information, go to www.claytonandclayton.com