Each year, Global Asbestos Awareness Week provides an opportunity to stress the dangers of asbestos exposure, while advocating for a ban of its use around the world. This year’s 14th annual awareness week is April 1-7, and is pushing to end the use of the known carcinogen responsible for 200,000 deaths annually. More than 8 million pounds of asbestos has been imported into the U.S. over the last decade, despite the limits put in place by the EPA to drastically reduce asbestos use.
The influence of asbestos is still a pressing issue among a variety of industries. Asbestos exposure is one of the leading causes of occupational cancer in America, specifically across construction, manufacturing, and government services. Firefighters fall into this category, and are twice as likely than the average person to be exposed to the toxin.
Why is Asbestos Dangerous?
Asbestos saw its peak use in the mid-20th century. Due to its fire-resistant properties, the mineral was widely mined, manufactured, and distributed around the world. It was not until the mid-1970s that the health risks associated with asbestos exposure were made known and regulations were issued to limit its use. Today, various products are still allowed to contain one percent of asbestos, from construction materials to homegoods and appliances.
The danger of asbestos lies in its microscopic fibers. When the mineral deteriorates or has been manually disturbed, these fibers become airborne, coating the environment and contaminating the air. Inhaling or ingesting asbestos fibers can lead to serious health conditions such as asbestosis and cancers like mesothelioma. Since firefighters often come into contact with aging or dilapidated buildings containing asbestos, they are at a high risk for developing these diseases.
How are Firefighters at Risk?
Many homes and buildings around the country contain some amount of asbestos. When a structure catches fire or is dilapidated, asbestos fibers spread through the air, with the highest probability of exposure taking place at the onset of extinguishing the fire. The risk lingers long after the fire has been put out, sticking to apparel and materials, and settling onto the surrounding area. These fibers can be windswept or carried into homes and communities, leading to similarly dangerous secondhand exposure.
Once the asbestos fibers are breathed in, they embed into the lining of internal organs such as the lungs, abdomen, and heart, slowly causing irritation that may lead to malignant cell growth. With cancers like mesothelioma, it can take anywhere from 20-50 years until symptoms become prominent. This means firefighters who were exposed earlier in their careers may not show signs of a condition until years after retirement.
Combatting Asbestos Exposure
Due to its tie to life-threatening health conditions, all measures must be taken to ensure firefighters avoid exposure to asbestos on the job. Proper safety gear and masks must be worn during the entire process, including clean up and overhaul. The next step is to carefully clean any gear and exposed skin, so as not to carry the microscopic fibers off site. Taking simple steps to decontaminate each individual and the immediate environment can go a long way toward preventing harmful exposure within the community.
Firefighters and other first responders risk their lives in public service every time they are on the job, but face even further health complications than immediate jobsite dangers. The potential for asbestos exposure and its associated diseases alone serve as a reminder to take extra precaution and use preventative measures to keep employees and colleagues safe for years to come. Building awareness around hazards like asbestos exposure will help to better prepare all who may face these dangers both in and out of the workplace. Global Asbestos Awareness Week serves as a reminder that despite its restriction, asbestos exposure is still a prominent issue across many occupations and will continue causing damage until the toxin is fully banned worldwide.
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