Fire fighters sent for X-rays after exposure to asbestos during building fire.
The Austin Fire Department responded to 7309 N. Interstate 35 for a blaze inside a warehouse next to an old Home Depot in St. John’s. In putting out the blaze, the fire fighters were exposed to asbestos. Battalion Chief David Brietzke said the city owned the property and was leasing it out to a video production company using it for storage, and just a few hours before the call, the city was on site inspecting it.
Michelle Tanzola, a spokesperson for AFD, said the department attempts to warn those responding to any threats, including potential asbestos exposure, before they arrive on scene. She explained, “We have permits on record for those sorts of things, so the firefighters know before they arrive that those materials are on site. Other than making an anecdotal assumption based on the age of a structure (however, even then remodeling and/or abatement could have occurred), since asbestos is a substance that’s not an issue unless disturbed in some way, there’s no way for them to know before they arrive if it’s in a building’s tile glue, ceiling tiles, etc.”
After the exposure, she said, “We’re sending approximately 115 individuals for X-rays as a precautionary measure. Should they develop some sort medical issue later as a result that needed treatment, establishing a baseline record and paperwork now ensures less red tape later for them to get care, even though it would be covered under the presumptive law regardless. We want to take care of our folks and doing this protects them both while they’re still working for us and into retirement, too.”
Asbestos is made up of six naturally occurring, heat resistant minerals with soft, flexible fibers. It is still used in hundreds of U.S. consumer product but must be less than 1% of the product. Asbestos is a known carcinogen and exposure causes cancers and other diseases, including mesothelioma and asbestosis. It is commonly inhaled or ingested in dust and debris, causing the fibers to become permanently lodged in the body. A study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found “firefighters develop mesothelioma at twice the rate as the rest of the population.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides a list of where asbestos may be found, which includes in attics and walls, vinyl titles, flooring and adhesives, roof and siding shingles, some paints and patching compounds, millboard or cement sheets, hot water and steam pipes, oil and coal furnaces and door gaskets, among others.
“Most of the brick-and-mortar downtown on Sixth Street has asbestos in it,” President of the Austin Firefighters Association Bob Nicks explained. “It’s around a lot, and it’s not to be worried about when it’s in that form – encapsulated. When it’s not airborne, it’s not a hazard to us.”
A city spokesperson confirmed, “The building had recently been vacated by a tenant that was using the space as storage. At the time of the fire there was no tenant or use of the facility.” There were no injuries as a result, and the fire was brought under control.