Whenever people think of jobs associated with the dangers of asbestos exposure, positions in construction, automotive repair or work on shipyards often come to mind. But what about firefighters’ risk of asbestos exposure?
Unfortunately, these emergency response workers can be very vulnerable to asbestos on the job. As if it weren’t enough that they have to save people from buildings set ablaze, they also have to worry about breathing in asbestos fibers that break away in a burning wreckage.
Recently, I read a story from Nexstar Broadcasting about one former firefighter and 911 operator in Maryland who’s dealing with the repercussions of such a hazard, as he’s battling sarcomatoid mesothelioma.
Patient’s disease reaches his brain
Beginning at age 16, Bill Wiegel worked for several years as a firefighter. Although he’s been a 911 operator for the last 24 years, he’s still reeling from the health effects of his former job.
Wiegel’s daughter, Merry Meyer, had this to say to the news source about her 66-year-old father:
“Mesothelioma comes from asbestos. And asbestos was around in the ’60s and ’70s, which was the peak time Dad was joining the fire service.”
What makes Wiegel’s case more worrisome is the fact that the cancer metastasized to his brain, which is a rare occurrence. To help pay for his chemotherapy at Johns Hopkins Hospital, his family is asking the community to come together at several fundraisers, including an event on June 29.
They also hope that the community will remember how Wiegel dedicated himself to service for nearly 50 years.
Where does the danger of asbestos come from?
Asbestos was a common component of construction materials that were used before the 1980s. In fact, it’s still allowed in the manufacturing processes of certain products today.
When it comes to the burning buildings where firefighters have to battle, asbestos can be found in roofing materials, shingles, vinyl items, furnace door gaskets and insulation products. Mineral fibers can easily break apart and become airborne during a blaze and when firefighters spray materials down with high-powered hoses.
Because asbestos has fireproofing qualities, some outdated models of helmets and coats used by firefighters may be tainted by the material as well.
What can firefighters do to protect themselves?
It may seem obvious, but a wreckage should be wet with water as a protective measure. Doing so will minimize the risk that asbestos fibers will become airborne.
A self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA, may be sufficient to protect firefighters from airborne mineral fibers. This is important to remember because these devices aren’t worn for all segments of a firefighting operation. During such jobs, firefighters also need to remember how to use proper venting and entry techniques.
As with any job where exposure to asbestos is a risk, firefighters have to be mindful of mineral fibers attaching themselves to their clothing. Experts say that in case this happens, firefighters and supervisors need to follow certain procedures:
- Remove the clothing and equipment and isolate them in plastic bags.
- Collect samples from the wreckage site for laboratory analyses for asbestos.
- Clean all protective clothing and equipment according to the regulations published in NFPA 1851.
- Collect additional samples from the clothing and equipment for retesting after they’ve been cleaned.
Considering how strong the evidence connecting asbestos to deadly diseases is, it’s appalling that firefighters still have to deal with the risk of exposure. If anything, this just underscores the need for government officials to ban all use of the material, and reminds us to be grateful for the rescue workers in our communities.