California’s Butte Fire Asbestos Hazard Reminds of Firefighter Risks

Asbestos in building materials puts firefighters and hazmat workers at risk of exposure during and after fires.

The September 2015 Butte Fire in California's Amador and Calaveras Counties burned more than 70,000 acres and burned more than 850 residential and other kinds of buildings. In early October, state and federal agencies began coordinating and managing cleanup, focusing on the safe removal of hazardous waste from the sites of destroyed homes and businesses, including asbestos that can be present in resulting debris, dust and ash after incineration of building materials.

Asbestos, a mineral with heat-resistant properties, can be present in many building materials, especially in older buildings before government regulation reduced the incidence. Common asbestos-containing building material includes:

  • Insulation (attic, pipe, duct and other)
  • Linoleum and floor tile
  • Stucco and other sidings
  • Plaster, ceiling popcorn and drywall
  • Ceiling tile
  • Shingles and other roofing materials
  • Fireplace surfaces
  • Cement
  • Boilers
  • Gaskets
  • Fireproofing
  • Glues, putties and other compounds

Of course, when these materials burn, microscopic asbestos particles can be released into the air. In the Butte Fire cleanup, hazmat crews must remove not only large debris that could contain the mineral, but also associated dust and ash, in which asbestos fibers may concentrate because they do not burn up.

Obviously, firefighters are at great risk of asbestos exposure, especially if they battle fires in buildings without correct breathing equipment. It can also be important for a firefighter to correctly remove safety clothing and equipment so as to avoid further exposure from asbestos fibers that have stuck.

In a monumental 2013 study funded and supported by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health or NIOSH, the U. S. Fire Administration or USFA, the National Institutes of Health or NIH and the National Cancer Institute or NCI, all public agencies, researchers studied cancer rates of almost 30,000 career firefighters in three major cities over decades of follow up.

A major finding of the study was that firefighters have twice the risk as compared to the general population of developing or dying from malignant mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the linings surrounding internal organs associated with asbestos. The average length of time between date of first employment as a firefighter and mesothelioma diagnosis was 45 years, a logical finding since mesothelioma typically takes decades to develop.

Mesothelioma causes respiratory impairment, severe pain and often death. Treatments can be difficult to endure such as lung removal, chemotherapy and radiation. Firefighters are also at risk of other asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis and lung cancer.

Any firefighter who has developed mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease or the surviving family member of a deceased firefighter who died from one of these illnesses should speak with an experienced personal injury lawyer about potential legal remedies.

The asbestos attorneys of Brayton Purcell, L.L.P., with offices in California, Washington, Oregon and Utah, and with affiliated counsel in Hawaii and Oklahoma, represent clients nationwide in legal actions related to injury from asbestos exposure.