Falling victim to mesothelioma or asbestos-related cancer is most commonly associated with employees who spent most of their working lives in industries such as shipbuilding, manufacturing or maintenance of asbestos insulating products. Builders, joiners, plumbers and electricians have long been considered to be on the ‘frontline’ of asbestos exposure with an average of 20 tradesmen estimated to lose their lives every week to mesothelioma or asbestosis diseases.

Asbestos awareness and the fatal dangers of “environmental” exposure are often in the news when building contractors unexpectedly uncover the deadly fibre boards in a school, hospital, housing estate, or when plans are announced for the expansion or relocation of a landfill site involving asbestos waste materials. Teachers, pupils, nurses, office workers, shop staff and council tenants are further well-known examples of being at vulnerability to asbestos exposure.

Damage to hidden asbestos materials and airborne fibre dust

Increasingly, concern is being raised over the potential but real health risks from repeated exposure to asbestos by men and women in the emergency services. Fire fighters, in particular, are likely to be called to premises where damage to hidden asbestos materials and airborne fibre dust can place fire crews at risk. While today’s firemen are largely protected by modern breathing apparatus and specially designed uniforms, previous generations were  likely to be more prone to breathing in the fatal particles.

One recent tragic example was a 78 year old former Newcastle firefighter who died just three days following a confirmed diagnosis of mesothelioma, 25 years after retiring from the fire service. Stationed at Newcastle city centre between 1960 and 1986, from where, according to former co-workers, the crews would regularly attend to “fires in local shipyards, factories and houses.”

Smoke may contain tiny asbestos fibre particles

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 extinguished 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. Fireman may be required to crawl through confined spaces, such the ducts under hospital boiler houses, alongside asbestos-lagged pipes and through the asbestos dust and debris on floors. Later, the deadly fibres would be physically shaken off a uniform while breathing in the airborne dust.

Fabric of the building has been damaged

Brief but regular exposure can be sufficient for sustained inhalation of the dust particles. Once embedded within the ling linings, a period of between 15 to 50 years often elapses before the first asbestosis symptoms or early signs of mesothelioma appear.

Fire fighters have always been at potential 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 extreme disturbance. From the 1950s through to the late 1970s, combined asbestos imports increased from around 124,000 tons to 180,000 tons every year.

Firefighter’s legal position

White asbestos continued to be used in a variety of insulation materials and products even after the most toxic asbestos types were banned in the mid 1980s . The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) caution that any premises constructed or renovated up to 1980 and even as late as 2000 (when white asbestos was finally banned) should be reasonably suspected to contain asbestos materials.

Due to the continuing dangers of firefighters who may disturb asbestos today, a number of fire and rescue services have asked HSE to clarify their position to the legal requirements following the HSE update in 2012 to the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006.

In the update, HSE now include the notification of work and record keeping for specific types of non-licensed asbestos work and medical surveillance of those workers who come into contact with asbestos. In addition, by April 2015, all workers/self employed carrying out notifiable, non-licensed work with asbestos must be under health surveillance by a doctor.

HSE have previously reported that every year in the UK, an estimated 1.8 million people – mostly building contractors, related trades, demolition workers and fire fighting crews  –  are still being exposed to asbestos, and 4,000 deaths are recorded, caused by asbestos-related disease.