On May 6, 2021, approximately 115 firefighters in Austin, Texas, were potentially exposed to asbestos while responding to a burning warehouse. Firefighters were alerted to the asbestos risk one hour into fighting the fire.
Firefighting is a high-risk occupation for asbestos exposure. The damage caused by a fire can release asbestos fibers in old buildings into the air. Inhaling asbestos fibers can lead to serious health conditions, such as mesothelioma.
2021 Texas Warehouse Fire
On May 6, 2021, a city-owned warehouse located in Austin’s St. John’s neighborhood caught fire. The city purchased the warehouse in 2013. At the time, a building survey found asbestos in the warehouse. This survey discovered asbestos in “drywall, flooring, floor adhesive, and the ceilings of the main warehouse.”
Workers with the city’s Building Services Department completed a safety inspection at noon, three hours before the fire began. The cause of the fire is unknown.
Firefighters Exposed While Responding to Fire
Firefighters were alerted to the potential risk of asbestos exposure when the third alarm bell unit arrived. The initial response team arrived five minutes after receiving a call about the fire. They had been working to put out the fire for one hour when they learned about the possible risk of exposure.
In a fire, firefighters may come into contact with hundreds of dangerous substances, such as asbestos. Thus, firefighters always take general safety precautions.
Additional precautions were taken after this fire. The firefighters’ gear was analyzed for asbestos rather than simply decontaminating it.
The firefighters also had chest X-rays taken shortly after exposure. The X-rays establish a baseline in case there are future asbestos-related medical concerns. Asbestos diseases, such as mesothelioma, can take decades to present. Thus, it is unknown how many firefighters, if any, will be affected by this potential exposure.
High-Risk Exposure Occupations
There are certain occupations with a higher risk of asbestos exposure. Some of these high-risk industries include shipbuilding, construction and oil refining. First responders, such as firefighters, are also among the highest at risk of exposure.
Dangers of Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos is a durable mineral that was once used in many public and residential buildings. It is a low-cost material that is resistant to heat and fire. Because of this, it was added to many popular construction materials prior to the 1980s.
Many old buildings still contain asbestos. If left undisturbed, asbestos is relatively safe. However, building repair or remodeling can release asbestos fibers. These small fibers can cause asbestos-related cancers and lung diseases, such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
Risk of Developing Mesothelioma
Being exposed to asbestos does not guarantee the development of a related disease. However, asbestos is a harmful material to be exposed to.
It is best to seek help from a medical professional if current or previous asbestos exposure is possible. Individuals should also speak to their doctor if they are experiencing any of the following mesothelioma symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Fluid buildup
- Difficulty swallowing
Firefighters Exposed to Asbestos Should Remain Vigilant for Symptoms
The Texas warehouse fire highlights the asbestos dangers firefighters often face in the line of duty. If a burning building contains asbestos, firefighters face a high risk of exposure. In some cases, firefighters might not be alerted to the risk until the fire response is already underway.
— Austin Fire Department Spokesperson, KXAN