Asbestos is the commercial name given to a variety of six naturally-occurring fibrous minerals. Because these minerals possess high tensile strength, flexibility, and resistance to heat, electricity and chemicals, asbestos was used in many buildings and other structures throughout the 1900s. After discovering that asbestos was a carcinogen, the U.S. government began to ban the use of asbestos in products. Unfortunately, even though asbestos has been banned for most uses since the 1980s, many buildings still contain asbestos.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), more than seventy-five occupational groups are known to have exposed workers to asbestos. Yet, when people think of asbestos exposure, they usually think of individuals involved in the fields of construction, mining, drilling or mechanics, while often overlooking the risk exposure presents to firefighters. However, considering that firefighters and other first responders are often required to enter old structures that are either on the verge of collapsing or on fire, every time a firefighting operation involves a fire in a home or building that contains asbestos, there is a high probability that potentially deadly fibers will be released into the air.
Indeed, throughout the 20th century, asbestos was used in thousands of construction, commercial and household products, including, but not limited to, fire retardant coatings, insulation, pipes, drywall, flooring, roofing and sealants. In 2010, the NIOSH and the U.S. Fire Administration launched a multi-year study to examine whether fire fighters have a higher risk of cancer, including mesothelioma, due to job exposures from smoke, soot, and other contaminates, like asbestos. Although results will not be communicated to firefighters and the public until 2014, the existence of the study emphasizes the concerns of excessive rates of cancer among the 1.1 million volunteer and career fighters in the United States.
In addition to being exposed to asbestos products in building materials, firefighters are also exposed to asbestos through their protective clothing and even at fire stations. Since firefighters have to withstand high levels of heat, their clothes were made to also withstand high heat. As a result, from the 1930s to the 1970s firefighter helmets, pants and boots were made with asbestos. Even today, some firefighter clothing contains small quantities of asbestos. Similarly, dust from firefighter gear can build up in the fire station posing yet another risk for asbestos exposure among firefighters.
Notably, Texas is among the states with the highest employment of firefighters. At the same time, according to the Texas Department of Health Services, asbestos is present in over half of the state’s public buildings. Luckily, Texas has various programs in place to help protect against the risk of asbestos exposure. The Texas Department of Health Services’ Asbestos Program provides direct services to prevent occupational and environmental diseases through the identification, evaluation and control of asbestos health hazards. Additionally, The Texas Asbestos Health Protection Rules (TAHPR) requires that a person be appropriately licensed or registered to engage in asbestos abatement or any asbestos-related activity.
There are several ways firefighters can attempt to prevent asbestos-related diseases, including:
1) Completing asbestos training -There are over 30 asbestos training providers approved by the Texas Department of State Health Services in the State of Texas. These training courses teach firefighters and other industrial workers how to identify where asbestos may be present, and how to handle asbestos without posing an exposure threat.
2) Wear appropriate protective gear – Firefighters should continue to wear self contained breathing apparatus while searching for hotspots and wear new versions of safety suits that are asbestos free.
3) Clean up before leaving the fire station – After a fire, firefighters should shower and change into clean clothes before leaving the workplace in order to avoid bringing home asbestos dust.
If you are a firefighter and have suffered mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis, pulmonary fibrosis, or have lung irritation, shortness of breath, and/or chest pain, you may have suffered an asbestos-related injury on the job. In addition, even if none of these symptoms are present, you may still have asbestos fibers within your lungs. You may be entitled to collect money damages. If you would like more information about mesothelioma or other health risks associated with asbestos exposure, contact a San Antonio personal injury attorney today at 1-800-862-1260.
Workplace Safety & Health Topics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
USFA and NIOSH Initiate Study of Cancer among Firefighters, U.S. Fire Administration
Asbestos Program, Texas Department of State Health Services
Proposed Legislation and Upcoming Texas Supreme Court Decision May Impact Future Asbestos Litigation in Texas, Texas Injury Lawyers Blog, March 14, 2013