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Veterans Resources

Firefighters and Asbestos



How Firefighters Can be Exposed

Firefighters encounter a variety of construction materials during a fire and in older buildings, those materials may contain asbestos.

The initial risk of exposure is small during the initial firefighting stages because firefighters will be wearing respirators and masks that keep harmful substances from being inhaled. Asbestos fibers can be put into the air if the material itself disintegrates as a result of the fire or from water being applied to the weakened material.

The real danger occurs during the overhaul stage when firefighters have the blaze under control and search for remaining hotspots. Often this is done without the use of any respiratory protection and asbestos fibers can then be inhaled along with many other dangerous chemicals. In fact a study of 25 structure fires in the Phoenix area found higher than allowable levels of carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and sulfur dioxide in 20 percent or more of the fires during that stage. Download the Study

The risk of exposures increases when ceilings or walls are opened to make sure the fire has been extinguished. It is recommended that firefighters wet any areas they are working on in order to minimize the risk of fibers being released into the air.

In addition it is recommend that entry and venting techniques that involve cutting or destroying asbestos containing materials (regardless of whether a material is friable or non-friable) should not be performed without protective equipment.

Fibers released during the fire and subsequent overhaul stage can settle on protective equipment. Thorough decontamination procedures should be followed if firefighters may have come into contact with asbestos containing materials in order to minimize the risk of transporting fibers from the scene back to the firehouse or home.

  • Protective equipment and clothing should be washed (preferably at the scene). If this cannot be done on the scene, it should be done as soon as possible.
  • Personnel performing post-fire cleanup should have an air monitoring plan to protect their safety

Other Sources of Exposure

Asbestos may be located in the firehouse itself but it does not pose an immediate risk as long as it is in good condition. Most firehouses have undergone asbestos inspections and if the material is present you will likely be notified and further inspections will be made to monitor its condition. If you see anything that looks abnormal, let someone know.

Asbestos may be present in condemned buildings that are burned for training purposes. Firefighters in Everett, Washington were exposed to asbestos in a series of buildings despite warnings from a construction company. Most of the time permits are granted only after the building has been inspected for asbestos but you should never assume that because you're training on a structure that is 100 percent safe. After training note any areas that seem to have been unaffected by the heat or are in much better condition relative to the rest of the structure. Make sure cleanup personell are aware of this as well.

Next Section: The Effects of Asbestos on 9/11 First Responders