When fire breaks out in a building, today’s greater asbestos awareness often leads to the press reporting a rumour that asbestos materials are present.

Heightened concern can derive from the ever-present possibility of exposure to asbestos in any premises built or renovated up until 2000. Emergency services personnel – in particular, fire fighters – can fall victim to asbestosis or other asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma and pleural thickening.

One recent example is an 85 year old former firefighter from Merseyside who was exposed to asbestos whilst employed during the height of Britain’s widespread use of the deadly insulation between the 1950s and the 1980s.

Breathing equipment only to be used when specifically instructed

At the start of his firefighting career in 1954, the service did provide protective breathing equipment but it was only to be used when specifically instructed. At this time, company employers in many industry sectors simply neglected to issue any protective equipment at all to their workforce.

Looking back on his early days in the service the former firefighter recalls that “the importance of breathing equipment wasn’t as well-known as it is today”. While breathing in the smoke was a constant worry for him, the potential health risks of inhaling asbestos were simply not thought about.

A common side effect of exposure to asbestos

The potential for mesothelioma or another asbestos disease to develop can lay dormant for up to 50 years or more before asbestosis symptoms first appear. It wasn’t until the former fireman began to suffer breathing difficulties some thirty years after leaving the service that a GP test confirmed the presence of pleural thickening.

Pleural thickening is a common side effect of exposure to asbestos. Once breathed in, the needle-like fibres cause chronic irritation and inflammation when they become embedded in the delicate tissues. As a result, the lung linings thicken and reduce the elasticity and ability of the lung to function. Common symptoms include shortness of breath, feeling of tightness across the chest, and can develop into a more serious condition, such as mesothelioma.

Currently, provisional compensation has been awarded to help with the retired firefighter’s ongoing care and treatment costs.

Asbestos in buildings built at any time up to the end of the 20th C

Asbestos itself will not burn in a fire, however, the smoke released may contain tiny asbestos fibre particles. During a fire asbestos may disintegrate causing fibre particles to become airborne and create a potentially deadly cloud of floating asbestos dust. The water used to extinguish a fire may also further expose and break fibres down, which can be easily inhaled after drying out.

Firefighters are most likely to encounter asbestos in buildings built at any time up to the end of the 20th C, such as insulating boards (AIB), roofing sheets, shingles or adhesives, attic insulation, pipe, wiring or duct insulation, textured wall coatings , plaster and tiles.

Even when the fire is thought to be extinguished, firefighters run the risk of further exposure to asbestos dust when pulling down ceilings or pipes, or creating openings in walls to check for other burning areas.

Risk of mesothelioma nearly two and half times higher for firefighters

Firefighters are considered to be at high risk of exposure and over the past ten years, the association between firefighting and an increased risk of cancer, including asbestos-related lung cancer, has grown. The risk of developing mesothelioma, caused solely as a result of exposure to asbestos is estimated to be nearly two and half times higher for firefighters than the general population.

In 2014, another retired firefighter, aged 76, was diagnosed with mesothelioma after visiting his GP complaining of chest pains and breathlessness. The former fireman, also from Merseyside, claimed the service failed to protect him from repeated exposure to asbestos during a career spanning just over 30 years.

Between 1961 and 1992, he said he was exposed to asbestos dust and fibres when attending fires, carrying out maintenance work on fire service property and also while using asbestos blankets to extinguish flames. In the former firefighter’s statement, once again it is pointed out that he “received no training about the hazards of asbestos” and he was “not advised and required to use breathing apparatus” when working in asbestos contaminated air.

Medical examinations for crew members who disturb asbestos

Today, firefighters will have use of breathing apparatus known as an SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus). The equipment allows firefighters to enter smoke-filled environments without damaging their lungs and can protect against any harmful asbestos fibres, which may have been released during a fire or building collapse.

In April 2012, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) updated the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 to include medical surveillance of those workers who come into contact with asbestos. Concerned fire and rescue services have asked HSE to clarify their position on periodic medical examinations for crew members who disturb asbestos.

The HSE estimate that half a million metric tons of asbestos-containing materials could still be present in around 1.3 million public, residential and commercial properties in Britain today.