Raising asbestos awareness to the presence of asbestos materials hidden in at least half a million properties around Britain extends beyond building industry and related tradesmen, who are considered to be in the front line of exposure risk.

As recent extreme weather conditions continually remind us, it can also be the emergency service crews who can be at risk of exposure to asbestos materials when called to premises where the fabric of the building has been damaged by fire, flood, explosion or other structural disturbance.

Fire fighters, in particular, have been most vulnerable to asbestos exposure when called to premises where the inhalation of asbestos dust released into atmosphere was always likely to be a hidden danger.

Despite the ban on the most toxic types in the mid 1980s, white asbestos fibres ( chrysotile) remained in use as an insulating and fire retardant building material ( mixed with cement or plaster) for at least another ten years until imports were banned in 1999.

The fire and rescue services continue to be highly concerned. In April 2012, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) updated the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 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.

Medical examinations

A number of fire and rescue services have asked HSE to clarify their position on the legal requirements for periodic medical examinations for crew members who disturb asbestos.

Their concerns are not without good reason. Earlier this year, 50 fire fighters were called to a former asbestos factory in Rochdale, where local residents were advised to close doors and windows as a precaution due to the high volumes of smoke being released into the atmosphere.

While asbestos itself will not burn in a fire, the smoke released may contain tiny asbestos fibre particles and the water used to extinguish a fire may further expose and break fibres down, which can be easily inhaled after drying out.

Debris left after a fire has been put out may also contain asbestos fibres. There can still be considerable health risks 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. Once embedded within the lung linings, a period of between 15 to 50 years may elapse before the first asbestosis symptoms or early signs of the fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer emerge.

Crawl through asbestos dust

In a current case, a firefighter in his early fifties points to his training and work in the Fire and Rescue Service in the late 1970s, early 1980s as being responsible for his contracting of mesothelioma.

In a statement it is recalled that on initial and refresher training, he would have to crawl into confined spaces, such the ducts under hospital boiler houses, alongside asbestos-lagged pipes and through the asbestos dust and debris on floors. Once the exercise was over, the asbestos dust and fibres would be knocked off from his fire kit, while breathing in the clouds of asbestos dust and fibre.

When called to put out real fires where asbestos material were present, fibre dust would be released due to the damage caused, and after the fire was put out, materials including damaged asbestos would have to be pulled down and raked through releasing further dust particles.

Just a month ago, it was also reported that a former 84 year old fireman from Hull received asbestos compensation after contracting an asbestos-related disease when he worked for the Fire Brigade between 1951 and 1969.

Every year in the UK, an estimated 1.8 million people are still being exposed to asbestos and 4,000 deaths are recorded from asbestos-related disease ( HSE).