Asbestos may be a hidden danger at fire scenes

Most people would agree that being a firefighter is a noble profession. They run into situations that others run away from. Firefighters are more than aware of the dangers that they encounter every time they respond to a fire. Smoke inhalation, flames and other hazards make their jobs dangerous.

A danger that many firefighters may not anticipate or be able to see involves exposure to asbestos. Part of Pittsburgh's charm and allure is that it is home to numerous old buildings. Several of those buildings still contain asbestos.

What was asbestos used for in buildings?

You may be wondering why asbestos was widely used in construction if it's carcinogenic to humans. This naturally occurring material functioned as a flame retardant and was used in building materials, such as the following:

  • Flooring
  • Ceiling insulation
  • Drywall
  • Plaster
  • Wall insulation
  • Roofing materials
  • Electrical wiring insulation

Some experts say that these materials are not dangerous as long as the asbestos does not become airborne. During a fire, it does just that. The dust cloud of asbestos created during a fire can threaten the lives of the firefighters battling the blaze.

Doesn't their equipment prevent exposure?

First, no safe exposure limit to asbestos exists. Any exposure could result in health issues. The exposure does not have to occur while a firefighter works to put out a fire. When firefighters remove their safety equipment, the dust cloud at the scene, or the cloud created by moving the equipment around, leads to exposure. In some cases, people not even at the scene could suffer exposure if they fail to properly handle the contaminated gear.

What health consequences do firefighters face from asbestos?

Asbestos-related illnesses such as mesothelioma, which is a lethal form of cancer, result from even brief contact with asbestos. The problem is that symptoms may not appear for anywhere between 30 and 50 years. Mesothelioma most often occurs in the protective layer of tissue (the mesothelium) surrounding the lungs, heart and abdomen. The symptoms vary according to where this disease develops.

What happens if a firefighter receives a mesothelioma diagnosis?

Like anyone else diagnosed with this disease, a firefighter may pursue compensation to help with medical costs and other damages associated with it. These cases are often much more challenging than a normal workers' compensation case, however. Since exposure more than likely occurred decades before the disease manifested, providing the necessary documentation and evidence may be difficult.

In addition, firefighters cannot remember every scene to which they responded over the course of their careers, so pinpointing exactly when and where the exposure occurred will likely prove impossible. Even so, it may be possible to receive much needed benefits with the right help.

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