Firefighters Exposed to Asbestos During Training
During a training exercise in an old department store building in Gastonia, North Carolina, some 130 firefighters faced perils that they’d never imagined would be a problem. The danger wasn’t the blaze that they were battling but, rather, the material that was burning. That material was toxic asbestos.
According to a story aired on a local Charlotte television news program, the training happened in an old Sears store and there were asbestos-containing ceiling tiles present inside the building (under the roof) while the life-saving exercises were transpiring. The firefighters had no idea as to the presence of the toxin, the media reported.
Concerned firefighters called Eyewitness News reporter Ken Lemon after the exercise and explained that they were called in December to train on the roof of the building.
They explained that nearly every one of Gastonia’s 130 firefighters were charged with the task of cutting holes in that roof. Sledge hammers and other tools were used.
The Gastonia fire chief said some of those firefighters damaged the old asbestos tiles under the roof and likely inhaled toxic fibers.
Reports show that engineers for the city had identified asbestos tiles inside the Sears store about 18 months ago, yet the fire company was never told of that finding.
Hence, when the former store was chosen as a great place for a training exercise, no one was truly prepared for what they would encounter.
City officials claim, however, that they didn’t know about the training exercise until months after it happened, and at that point they self-reported it to OSHA and changed their policy to state that all buildings now must be inspected before firefighters are allowed to use them for training purposes.
OSHA fined the city of Gastonia in the amount of $77,000 (later reduced to $33,000) for its infractions and the firefighters who were on the premises during the exercise were offered free annual medical surveillance for asbestos-related health issues.
However, it’s unlikely that the medical testing will do much good, at least in the short term.
Asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma can take literally decades to appear, so a firefighter in his 20s or 30s may not be diagnosed with such a disease until he or she reaches their 60s or 70s.
In the meantime, there’s little that can be done to predict whether or not each firefighter might have suffered exposure and which may eventually get sick because of it.