While everyone has their own ideas about some of the world’s most dangerous jobs, most would agree that firefighting is on the list. Even though it is not as widely publicized as police deaths per year, there are over 100 casualties per year for firefighters. If you are like most people, you might attribute most of those deaths to things like smoke inhalation, carbon monoxide poisoning, and building accidents from collapsing debris and complete structural failures. However, in the line of duty firefighters often encounter toxic materials from old buildings on fire that can cause chronic diseases and even death. Among the many toxins they are exposed to, none may be as deadly as asbestos.
Asbestos can be a silent killer. Left untouched, the substance is not harmful. But, once it is disturbed and airborne, it weaponizes; damaging the lungs of anyone who breathes it in. When firefighters are in the midst of doing their heroic job, it is easy for asbestos to be one of the last things on their minds. However, even limited exposure to airborne asbestos can cause lung cancer, including a more aggressive form cancer known as mesothelioma. This slow-forming, but deadly type of cancer produces ambiguous symptoms such as shortness of breath and chest pain. Because of its all-too-common symptoms and long forming time (between 20-40 years in some cases), firefighters can be routinely exposed to asbestos before ever being diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Asbestos can be found in various areas of a residence or commercial building. Insulation, drywall and other materials can contain the harmful material. It is an especially common substance found in older structures. During a fire, there is a real possibility for structural collapses, giving way to disturbed asbestos participles being released into the atmosphere. If there were any areas that needed repair before firefighters were called to the scene, there is a risk that any asbestos will become airborne.
So, how can firefighters stay safe while doing their job?
Most fire units outfit their fighters with the best suits on the market for fire safety. An SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) is a standard part of many firesuits. If the acronym looks like the word “scuba”, that is great because the function of it works in much the same way. In this suit, the firefighter is equipped with a breathing air source that resembles the ones worn by scuba divers. It is specifically designed to provide protection against toxic substances such as asbestos. Some SCBA suits even come with a high efficiency air filters (HEPA) to scrub the and purify the contained air of more than just toxins and chemicals.
A word of advice. When the smoke of a fire clears, some firefighters may decide that is the perfect time to take off the SCBA gear. Sure, sometimes the SCBA can get steamy, heavy, and cumbersome and you may think that because the fire risk has passed that it is safe to remove your gear. However, it is best to choose safety over comfort. As well, research has shown that that there is an elevated risk of high levels of toxins in the air such as PVC and asbestos even after the fire has abated.
Being a firefighter is definitely hard work, but is surely rewarding. Observing these few tips as well as having the correct safety gear can reduce asbestos exposure risk firefighters often face.