Virginia Firefighters Proactive in Fighting Mesothelioma With New Equipment Cleaning Procedures

Posted on May 10, 2016

Last week we reported on the asbestos exposure the Orlando Fire Department is grappling with after their gear was contaminated. Although firefighters are likely to encounter asbestos on many of their calls, the fibers should not go home with them. Now, fire departments in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley are ensuring asbestos gets safely washed away, helping to keep the firefighters safe from cancer-causing carcinogens.

According to an April 24 article in The Roanoke Times, Roanoke Fire-EMS Battalion Chief Matt Dewhirst knows far too well the health risks his department faces everyday with asbestos exposure, and exposure to other toxins: since 2009 his battalion has lost four firefighters to cancer. Now, he is determined to do what it takes to keep them safe. For Dewhirst, that started with investing in gear cleaning equipment and developing procedures and guidelines to help keep the firefighters safe from contaminants picked up at sites.

The department purchased three industrial-sized washing machines, called extractors, that can wash three firefighter suits at a time. In addition, the industrious crew built their own dryer – saving the department nearly $8,000 – that can dry six suits in about three hours.

The firefighters now wash their suits after every 24-hour shift. In the future, Dewhirst plans to purchase 250 sets of gear, one for every firefighter in the battalion, and wash the gear after each call. These procedures are a shift from sporadic cleaning, sometimes many months, of the equipment.

“Think of what’s in your home. It’s not wood and cotton, it’s plastic,” Dewhirst said. “Plastic has petroleum, which has carcinogens.”

Firefighters face exposure to asbestos, known to cause mesothelioma, lung cancer and other asbestos-related diseases, and other toxic materials, that are present in a structure during a fire or a building collapse. Asbestos was used heavily in construction materials in residences, commercial buildings and schools prior to the 1980s. Asbestos can be found in a wide range of building materials, including roofing shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, paper products, and asbestos cement products. Although no longer used in construction materials, firefighters will likely encounter asbestos-containing materials on calls.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study of firefighters, started in 2010, 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.

Nearly all of the Roanoke Valley fire departments are following Dewhirst’s lead, or had already initiated procedures to clean contaminated equipment. Salem and Roanoke County departments both house extractors and dryers in many of their stations. Roanoke County has requested additional funds from the county’s 10-year capital improvement plan to equip all of their stations, according to the Roanoke Times.

The Virginia State Firefighters Association is also initiating procedures and measures for its trainees including prohibiting gear inside the training center and providing a “dirty entrance” for rinsing and storing gear.

“No gear is allowed into any other areas of the building,” said Roanoke County Deputy Chief Travis Griffith. “This helps to prevent cross contamination into the areas that are frequented regularly by people and groups using the training center.”

There is no safe level of asbestos exposure, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Avoiding asbestos exposure is the only sure way of preventing mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases. Mesothelioma is a terminal cancer that often leaves patients with few treatment options and a prognosis of less than one year after diagnosis. Hopefully, these departments’ proactive measures, such as cleaning equipment, will keep the firefighters safe and healthy for years to come.

Watch the 10-minute video created by the Roanoke Fire-EMS aimed to raise awareness of cancer among firefighters.