Firefighter’s work environments are so extremely hazardous they can kill in an instant. Firefighters are frequently exposed to significant concentrations of hazardous materials including carbon monoxide, benzene, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen cyanide, aldehydes, hydrogen chloride, dichlorofluoromethane, and particulates which are all linked to the development of severe respiratory disease. The production of these hazardous chemicals are generated from burning household furnishings typically made of synthetic chemical based products.
Recent studies have linked exposure to these chemicals to an increased mortality rate of non-cancer respiratory disease. These diseases include but not limited to:
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Lung Disease (COPD)
- Pulmonary Fibrosis and Interstitial Lung Disease
Each and every day firefighters enter atmospheres that are dangerous to their life or health which is unlike most occupations where engineering controls or safety and health standards are employed to reduce the effect of exposures to toxic chemicals, gases and particulates.
Another safety concern in the fire service is asbestos exposure. Public servants who work tirelessly to keep citizens safe each day often need to be protected and kept safe from hazards that affect their lives. Firefighters are among this group, tasked with facing deadly fires every day to protect people and property. However, these servicemen and women also face dangers from exposure to hazardous materials like asbestos.
Multiple diseases and cancers are linked to asbestos exposure, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. These diseases don’t occur immediately after interaction with asbestos and can sometimes take as long as 50 years to develop. As no cure exists, the development of any of these diseases usually comes with a negative prognosis.
Even though the use of asbestos throughout the United States has significantly diminished in recent decades, it still poses a threat because it can be found in thousands of products that firefighters may inadvertently interact with. Identifying and eliminating these asbestos threats would prove beneficial in further protecting our honorable firefighters and other public servants.
Safety in the Workplace
The dangers that firefighters regularly face around asbestos can be impactful, even when they are unseen. Recent years have been filed with incidences of asbestos exposure within fire departments, firefighter training facilities and in emergency fire situations in public homes and buildings.
In Lackawanna, New York, in 2011, a fire station was found to have asbestos contained in old pipes. According to results from an independent lab, the levels of the materials were considered dangerous. Officials utilized contractors to remove the asbestos and relocated the firefighters during the process. However, it was not immediately clear of how much of the toxic material the public servants were exposed to.
In 2007, firefighters from the city of Everett, Washington, were involved in a training procedure in city-owned buildings that were determined to contain asbestos. This exposure was extremely hazardous because the firemen weren’t wearing any protective breathing equipment. They sued the city and the case was later settled in 2011.
The safety lesson learned from such events demonstrates that firemen should work with the department and city officials to test for the presence of asbestos in all fire departments and training buildings. Professional asbestos companies can perform the appropriate tests to identify if the material is present, and if so, how much a threat it poses. Then, removal procedures can be considered.
Overhauling the Use of Asbestos-Containing Equipment
The equipment worn and used by firefighters is also known to pose a threat in some cases as well. Some safety equipment used by various departments could contain asbestos within the gear, especially if it was manufactured before the 1980s. Firefighter equipment known to contain asbestos includes:
- Coats and jackets
This hazard can be addressed by ensuring that the department performs an in-depth audit of all current equipment supplies that firefighters are required to wear during fires and training sessions. Furthermore, any optional clothing and fire accessories should be looked into.
More obviously, actual fire occurrences also play a real threat of asbestos exposure. Firemen should always use the proper equipment when entering residential homes and buildings that are enflamed and potentially have asbestos-containing products, to prevent inhalation of asbestos fibers. Common household products that may contain asbestos include:
- roofing titles and shingles
- pipe insulation
- furnace door gaskets
- attic insulation
- ceiling materials
- flooring tiles
Equipment for Non-Fires
Another threat posed by asbestos, demonstrated at a much larger scale, is represented from the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. This event caused tremendous asbestos exposure to firefighters, in addition to policemen and other first responders. Because the buildings contained asbestos, fibers became airborne as the structure collapsed. The severity of this unfortunate circumstance could have been minimized with the use of additional equipment.
All firefighters should be equipped with the proper respiratory equipment that can be used in rescue and recovery efforts, beyond instances that involve actual fires. With unpredictable events like those on 9/11, firemen, like all public service workers, should be prepared to provide assistance without compromising or sacrificing their own safety.
Bio: Mark Hall spreads awareness about mesothelioma and asbestos by researching and writing for The Mesothelioma Center.