Asbestos awareness and the dangers of exposure to the hidden deadly fibres can make dramatic headlines whenever a fire is reported to have broken out at a factory warehouse. Asbestos was recently discovered in the roof of a haulage firm at a Liverpool industrial park as fire crews battled for six hours to prevent acetylene gas cylinders from exploding when the premises was engulfed in flames. Firefighters also faced the risk of inhaling airborne asbestos fibres and wore special face masks as they fought a fire at a timber-framed building in Dawlish, Devon just days later.

During one of the mildest winters on record, extreme flooding disasters have been repeated in parts of Britain, which can also uncover asbestos-containing materials as a result of the severe damage and is often unsuspected by property owners. Private residential housing built at any time up until 2000 are likely to still retain asbestos-containing materials, such as insulating wall board (AIB), soffits, spray textured coating, masonry fill and roof sheeting. Even ceiling and floor tiles long covered over and forgotten about can suddenly reappear as flood waters seep through the fabric of the building.

Flood waters can… expose flooring, walls and ceilings containing asbestos

Whenever properties have been subject to structural damage caused by flooding, there is always a risk of hidden asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) releasing invisible fibre dust into the atmosphere and particles can also be deposited on the surface of water with the risk of being inhaled once the fibres dry out. While not every asbestos material has the potential to be a health hazard unless disturbed, flood waters can seriously damage the integrity of buildings and expose flooring, walls and ceilings strengthened with asbestos fibre insulation.

Although there are categories of “non-friable” ( i.e. not fragile) asbestos material covering items, such as packing, “encapsulated” floor tiles and asphalt roofing products, both friable and non-friable materials are considered equally as dangerous and potentially, fatal hazards. A non-friable asbestos material can become friable due to age, exposure to sunlight, and liquids, including water breaking the material down.

The undoubted risks of asbestos exposure by emergency services attending premises destroyed by man-made or natural disasters have been a continuing cause for concern. The potential fatal consequences are most clearly signposted by the most recent news that a policeman is reported to have died of mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos when attending the scene of the infamous Brighton bombing.

Insufficient protection at bomb blast site

The anti-terror officer, aged 29 at the time, was part of a team who sorted through rubble and debris at the site as they attempted to find missing persons. A total of five people were killed and 39 were injured when the bomb exploded at Brighton’s Grand Hotel in 1984 on the eve of the Conservative Party conference. The family are continuing to pursue a claim for mesothelioma compensation following an action, begun by the victim before passing away, in which it is claimed that insufficient protection was provided to the officer while at the bomb blast site.

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 burning building. Asbestos does not actually burn in a fire, but the smoke 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.

Medical examinations for crew members who disturb asbestos

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.

In April 2012, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) updated the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 to include the notification of work and record keeping for specific types of non-licensed asbestos work. By May 2015, medical surveillance of those workers who come into contact with asbestos is expected to be put into place. 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.