Firefighters face a risk of exposure to asbestos, but with proper protection and safety procedures the risk should be minimal. Unfortunately, late last month, Orlando firefighters were told their gear was covered in “dangerously high levels” of asbestos.
According to an April 20 story from WFTV9-ABC, 93 items of gear from the Orlando Fire Department were tested in February after the firefighting crew was exposed to asbestos at an apartment complex where they were prepping the building for a training exercise. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report found that 27 items, including jackets and pants, had “high levels” of asbestos contamination, as reported by WFTV9.
The report claims some firefighters may have been exposed to 72 times the unacceptable amount of asbestos, according to WFTV9.
“There is obvious concern after looking at it [the report],” said Wayne Bernoska, vice president of local firefighters’ union 1365. “To understand how that will affect the members’ health that is going to be our number one concern.”
Bernoska said firefighter representatives will follow-up with the city, the health and safety board and a doctor, to better understand what the report means, and especially, what it means to the firefighters.
Asbestos is a known carcinogen and is proven to cause mesothelioma, a serious cancer resulting from breathing in the asbestos fibers that then becomes lodged in the thin membrane that lines and encases the lungs. Firefighters face exposure to asbestos if the substance is present in a structure and the fibers are disturbed in a fire or a building collapse.
Firefighters who wear appropriate respiratory protection devices may be safe from inhaling the fibers during the fire, but the asbestos fibers can settle on their clothing. It is essential to follow decontamination and cleaning procedures for firefighting gear to clean away the asbestos. Some of the Orlando firefighting gear that was not present at the site where the contamination occurred was also covered with asbestos. Since the report, all of the gear has been cleaned twice and currently there is no sign of asbestos.
In a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study of firefighters, started in 2010, researchers found that firefighters in the study had a rate of mesothelioma two times greater than the rate in the U.S. population as a whole. This was the first study ever to identify an excess of mesothelioma in U.S. firefighters.
Sickness resulting from asbestos exposure can take decades to present itself. 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with the cancer ever year. If you believe you have been exposed to asbestos, consult a medical profession to determine your next steps.