Investigators still aren’t sure what started the fire at an abandoned church in San Jose early Tuesday morning, but whatever the cause, it led to the discovery of what may be asbestos on water pipes exposed by the blaze.
And this, in turn, led to a suspension of efforts, on the part of firefighters, to find potential victims who may have been sheltering inside the church and succumbed to the flames, according to San Jose Fire Captain Chuck Rangel.
With a perimeter sweep and a safety check completed, San Jose fire crews will put off further investigation into the cause of the blaze at the structure until the property owner(s) can hire a certified asbestos inspection firm to determine if the material is, in fact, asbestos.
Until the nature of the material surrounding the water pipes is determined, the historic structure located in downtown San Jose, in the 200 block of Delmas Avenue near Park Avenue, remains off limits to everyone.
Asbestos, commonly used in insulative and building products during most of the 20th century, fell into more and more disfavor during the 1970s as federal, state and public health officials began to realize how much of a health threat it represented.
By 1989, with asbestos firmly linked to asbestosis, certain lung and digestive cancers, and – most conspicuously – mesothelioma, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was prompted to issue a ban on asbestos in domestic products that restricted it to one percent (by weight or volume).
Mining of asbestos also ceased, but industry lobbying since then has seen asbestos use returning to some venues. In fact, between 2007 and 2008, the U.S. imported about 1,880 tons of asbestos, primarily of the chrysotile variety. Imported products from countries which do not have an asbestos ban also contain varying amounts of asbestos. Brake pads from India, for example, where asbestos is not banned, can contain unexpectedly large amounts of chrysotile asbestos.
This persistence of asbestos in U.S. buildings and industry leads to 10,000 American deaths each year from asbestos-related diseases, one quarter of those exclusively from mesothelioma, a highly lethal but slow-acting form of cancer of the mesothelial tissues that surround the heart, lungs and digestive organs.
Of those 2,500 mesothelioma deaths, about three-quarters are diagnosed as pleural mesothelioma, the most common form of the disease. Peritoneal mesothelioma, which occurs in the abdomen, accounts for another 20 percent of diagnoses, with pericardial mesothelioma (around the heart) making up the smallest percentage.
Once asbestos professionals have inspected the Victorian church in San Jose, which was built in 1903 and eligible for listing as an historical landmark for its “high level of historic integrity”, firefighters will return to investigate the cause of the fire.
The church, which never actually received historic designation, has recently been used as a shelter by the homeless. In February, for example, the body of Hideki Hirakawa was found dead inside the building, in what police are labeling a homicide.
Firefighters and investigators will use specially trained dogs to sweep the debris for other unfortunates, but not until the nature of the white powder around the water pipes is determined. If the powder is asbestos, the owner will have to pay for remediation before any investigation can begin, because the fire department – while willing to work around asbestos in an emergency situation – does not do so routinely, Rangel noted.
Fortunately, there was nothing to indicate anybody was trapped inside the building, Rangel added, noting that the fire was discovered about 3:38 a.m. and largely extinguished about an hour later.
Sources: San Jose Mercury News, Envionmental Working Group, Enviroblog, India Together