More than 100 firefighters and civilians were possibly exposed to asbestos in Austin, Texas. The potential exposure came while fighting a 3-alarm fire in a city-owned abandoned warehouse. Through a survey contracted by the Building Services Department in 2013, asbestos was discovered in three buildings on the property. It was found in drywall, ceilings, flooring and floor adhesive in all three buildings, including the warehouse that burned. Preparation to demolish all these buildings was underway before the fire.
Firefighters were not aware they were possibly exposed to asbestos
Until the third alarm unit arrived on the scene, the firefighters and civilians were unaware of the possibility of asbestos. The incident report stated, “Although best precautions were taken to avoid exposure after notification, the fire was very significant and the smoke produced from the fire swirled throughout the fireground with multiple shifts in the wind while units were on scene. All firefighters and civilians on the fireground could have a possible exposure to asbestos.”
Dangers of asbestos exposure
Asbestos is a highly carcinogenic mineral. Its microscopic fibers can embed in lungs when inhaled. This can lead to lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma. All three diseases are harmful, but mesothelioma has no cure at this time and is fatal. It can take many decades after exposure before a victim is diagnosed.
Buildings, commercial and residential, often contained asbestos. It was a common building material until the early 1980s. It was in shingles, insulation, ceiling tiles, tile mastic and many other materials. If asbestos remains undisturbed, the fibers are not released. However, with remodeling or an accident, such as this fire, airborne fibers may lead to a possible exposure to asbestos. Removing asbestos requires abatement professionals. There is no safe level of exposure.
Firefighters deserve respect
Asbestos is not the only danger firefighters’ encounter. From falling structural pieces, to unknown chemicals or other hazardous materials stored inside, to environmental factors such as wind and storms, they remain focused. The president of the Firefighters Cancer Support Network, Bryan Frieders, said “firefighters are in danger and can be exposed to up to 200 cancer causing chemicals when they go into a burning building. Yet we still see firefighters on a daily basis going into these known-dangerous situations to try to save lives.”
Frieder said, “A lot of retirees two, three, four or five years after they retire are being diagnosed [or decades in the case of asbestos]. That’s a significant problem for us. They took an oath to serve the city they are serving. There is an expectation that the city they are serving is going to take care of them — and their families.”
The firefighters exposed in this fire were given chest X-rays as a baseline in case they develop lung problems in the future.
A film crew had recently vacated the building. Employees of Building Services inspected the building three hours before the fire started. At the time of the fire, officials didn’t know exactly what, if anything, was stored in the building. Currently, the cause of the fire is unknown.