More than a dozen Orlando firefighters were exposed to asbestos earlier this month because their supervisors failed to warn them of the known dangers.
The families of many of those firefighters worry secondhand exposure to the deadly mineral could place them at risk of developing mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases.
“It’s everywhere, you know?” said Andrea Donohoe, wife of one of the Orlando Fire Department firefighters exposed to asbestos. “Our baby is riding in his car. I was riding in his car. We’re all now exposed to asbestos.”
Her husband, Anthony Donohoe, and more than a dozen other firefighters were exposed to the carcinogen while removing flooring from an abandoned apartment building the fire department had planned to use for training.
“We were scraping on our hands and knees,” Donohoe told WFTV-Channel 9. “I know you’re supposed to wear suits and respirators, and we didn’t have any of that. We were out there in plain clothes.”
Federal law states that only trained and licensed professionals can remove asbestos in a building and dispose of it properly. Firefighters are generally not licensed to remove asbestos.
Floor tiles and other asbestos-containing building materials pose no harm if left alone. But if these items are disturbed, they release microscopic asbestos fibers into the air. When inhaled, the needle-like fibers become lodged in the tissue surrounding the lungs, leading to the development of tumors decades later.
Fire Department Knew of Asbestos Danger
WFTV had obtained documents showing a pre-demolition survey from a Tampa company had confirmed the building contained asbestos, but fire department officials never warned firefighters, the news station reported.
One of the firefighters who removed the asbestos-containing floor tiles tipped off the local news station.
After news of the asbestos exposure broke, fire department officials ordered the firefighters off the site.
“We had a potential problem, and what we are doing is mitigating the problem,” Orlando Fire Department Chief Roderick Williams told WFTV. “We stopped training at the site, and we’ll launch an investigation internally within the city to look at best practices.”
The Orange County Environmental Protection also launched an investigation into the incident.
Williams said more than 400 firefighters had been in that building in the last two months, but about a dozen worked directly with the asbestos tiles.
Wayne Bernoska Jr., vice president of the Orlando Professional Firefighters union said he met with fire department officials to discuss the asbestos exposure.
“We are looking into finding out if anybody was exposed to harmful things out there, and right now, we are trying to get out in front of it,” Bernoska said.
Safety Procedures Will Change
Orlando city officials said they plan to change procedures for dealing with abandoned buildings that may contain hazardous materials.
“I think what we’re probably going to do is say, look, if a building is built before 1980, we’ll just assume that it has asbestos until somebody tells you that it doesn’t,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said.
Meeting Between City Officials and Union Yields Action
Orlando Professional Firefighters union President Ron Glass met with Dyer, Williams and other city officials to negotiate a plan moving forward.
“It dealt with doing annual physicals, doing air quality samples of the training site, in addition testing all the bunker gear that was used out there to see if there is any exposure on the gear itself,” Glass said.
Firefighters Are at a Higher Risk for Mesothelioma
Because of the nature of a firefighter’s job dealing with hazardous materials and chemicals in burning building, firefighters are at a higher risk of developing several cancers and other dangerous conditions.
A 2013 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study involving 30,000 firefighters from Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco found the rate of mesothelioma among those firefighters was twice that of the general U.S. population.
“Firefighters can be exposed to contaminants from fires that are known or suspected to cause cancer,” the study showed. “These contaminants include combustion by-products, such as benzene and formaldehyde, and materials in debris such as asbestos from older structures.”
For Andrea Donohoe, this hazard seemed unnecessary for her husband who wasn’t fighting a fire, but instead preparing a building for a training exercise.
According to the union, an occupational health doctor will meet with the affected firefighters to help them understand their risks and answer their questions.