Large factory or warehouse fires can often also be the scene for public asbestos awareness and a reminder – if a reminder is needed – that the potentially deadly fibres are not yet consigned to Britain’s industrial past. Far from it, of course.

As recently as November 2017, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report highlighted that of an estimated 12,000 current annual UK deaths from occupational lung disease, Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (COPD) accounted for one in three of all fatalities, while one in five deaths was caused by mesothelioma – and exactly the same number diagnosed with asbestos-related cancer. In 2016, more than 90 per cent of the 4,240 new cases of occupational lung diseases assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB), were associated with past asbestos exposure.

It is not unusual for fire services to announce that a building is suspected of containing an amount of asbestos-containing materials. The professional building industry regularly remind the public that any building constructed or renovated up to 2000 should always be considered to contain asbestos materials. However, when a large fire does break out, an assurance is also firmly given by those involved that there is no risk to the public from any asbestos the building may contain.

The latest incident of suspected asbestos at a fire occurred early in February at a factory in Manchester involving around 100 firefighters, requiring nearby homes to be evacuated, and four schools and a nearby railway line closed.

Advised to keep windows and doors closed

While fire fighters cautioned that the burning building contained a “small amount” of asbestos, council spokesmen urged local residents not to clean up any ash which may have fallen on their property, and were advised to keep their windows and doors closed. As is almost always the case whenever asbestos is suspected, the council said that the health risks were “low” and any significant exposure to asbestos’ was “unlikely”.

According to council advice given out on social media, any asbestos containing material that may have been deposited in the ash or debris nearby to the industrial site was of “no significant health concern” because asbestos fibres are “held tightly within the body of cement products, such as corrugated roofs.” However, the public was also advised that it was sensible to take precautions.

This referred to any ash or debris, for example, from a car windscreen, which was to be first dampened down with water. Small particles could be “flushed down the drain” or larger pieces carefully placed in two plastic bags – one within the other – and taken to a “local household waste recycling centre”. Finally, a warning was given not to sweep up or vacuum the debris as this could “create airborne dust”.

Arguably, the advice given out could be more closely examined. Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, for example, there is a prescribed procedure for asbestos removal and disposal. But probably the big concern would be the potential risk from “airborne dust”.

Water used to extinguish a fire can break asbestos fibres down

It should be well known that the water used to extinguish a fire can expose and break the tiny asbestos fibres down, which can be inhaled, once airborne. Any rupture, breakage or other damage caused to the body of cement-based products made from tightly-packed asbestos fibres, such as corrugated roofs, can cause the fibres to break away and become airborne.

The emergency services, in particular, the fire fighters, have long been concerned over their vulnerability to inhaling dust released into the atmosphere from hidden asbestos materials, which have been damaged by fire, flood, explosion or other structural disturbance. While today’s firemen are largely protected by modern breathing apparatus and specially designed uniforms, there can still be a health risk to firefighters, who may prematurely remove their heavy respirators without realising the danger. Even a brief exposure can be sufficient to inhale the invisible fibres.

In 2012, the HSE updated the Control of Asbestos Regulations to include notification of work, record keeping for specific types of non-licensed asbestos work and medical surveillance of those workers who come into contact with asbestos. This led to a number of fire and rescue services to ask HSE for clarification of their position on the legal requirements for periodic medical examinations for crew members who disturb asbestos.

The emergency services continue to be highly concerned over the potential fatal risks of exposure to asbestos every time they are called to out to a building which has been structurally damaged. Every year in the UK, an estimated 1.3 million people – mostly building contractors, related trades, demolition workers and fire-fighting crews – are still being exposed to asbestos.