Firefighters in Everett, Wash. have been exposed to undetermined levels of asbestos during training exercises that are intended to promote safety on the job, a state investigator has concluded.
Because of the findings, city officials have halted “destructive training” in which firefighters chop holes or punch through the roofs, ceilings and interior drywall of buildings, a technique for ventilating smoke and flammable gases while making it easier to search for fire victims.
All (Everett) fire department personnel at sometime during their career, “have probably been exposed to asbestos in such training because the department does not check for the highly toxic substance, which can cause cancer,” according to a report from Enrique Gastelum Jr., a hygiene consultation supervisor in the state Department of Labor and Industries. “For that reason, firefighters should have regular checkups with a doctor to monitor their health,” Gastelum concluded.
He issued the recommendation after finding that some firefighters were exposed to unknown levels of asbestos in July during five days of training in condemned city-owned houses that were known to contain the substance.
“The training was halted after a city employee happened onto the scene and told firefighters the houses contained asbestos,” said Robert Downey, president of the firefighters’ union. Firefighters were then asked to clean their gear, vehicles and floors at firehouses. Downey said firefighters had not been told the houses contained asbestos.
“Judging by exposure reports filed with the state, 25 people had direct exposure to asbestos dust and 23 people had secondary exposure,” said Kate Reardon, a city spokeswoman.
“When you go to a fire, you assume it’s there, so you wear your mask,” Downey said. “We assumed they’d taken care of it … We weren’t wearing our breathing apparatus or anything, and we were creating dust clouds. People are worried they brought it home to their families.”
The city’s more than 180 firefighters will likely file claims with the state, Downey said.
Firefighters in other jurisdictions in the area told The Herald of Everett that before training in a house or other building, they must complete a detailed checklist showing asbestos and other potential hazards have been removed or mitigated, a standard set by the National Fire Protection Association.
The Everett Fire Department’s policy has been to assure that hazards are removed before training at live fires, but there has not been no similar policy for destructive training, Reardon said.
Reardon said Thursday that policies are being rewritten.
“We don’t want this to happen again,” she said. “We’re still trying to determine how this came to be. We still haven’t reached a conclusion.”
Asbestos consists of microscopic bundles of mineral fiber and was once commonly used in building materials, often as insulation. The fibers can become airborne when material containing asbestos is damaged or burned and, if inhaled, can cause lung cancer and other potentially fatal health problems.
Some asbestos products, including “popcorn” ceilings and pipe insulation, can be removed legally only by licensed asbestos abatement contractors. That work is required before a building is demolished, said Jim Nolan, supervisor for permitting and field enforcement with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.
“Asbestos is a known carcinogenic, and there are no known safe levels,” Nolan said. “That’s why there are comprehensive rules about how to remove it and prevent exposure.”
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