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Asbestos and Wildfires: A Growing Concern

Legally Reviewed by Joseph P. Williams on October 15, 2021

Although asbestos is no longer used in most building materials, it is still present in thousands of older buildings around the country. When these buildings are demolished or burned down in a wildfire, asbestos fibers that have been trapped inside the building materials can be released into the air – putting residents, first responders, firefighters and cleanup crews at risk of asbestos exposure. This can lead to related health problems, including terminal cancers.

How Might a Wildfire Increase the Risk of Asbestos Exposure?

A single wildfire can destroy thousands of structures. This includes both residential and commercial properties. If a wildfire affects an area with buildings constructed before the 1980s, there is a high probability of these buildings containing asbestos. Asbestos was widely used in building materials before being identified as a carcinogen and regulated in the United States. Asbestos was a popular building material due to its versatility, durability and fireproofing properties. It is found in many types of building materials, including:

  • Roofing materials
  • Cement
  • Fireplace mortar
  • Sheetrock
  • Insulation
  • Ductwork
  • Drywall
  • Plumbing
  • Ceiling and floor tiles
  • Vinyl tiles
  • Textiles
  • Adhesives
  • Spackling

When a wildfire burns down an older building, asbestos fibers can be released into the air. These particles are minuscule and may not be visible to the human eye, especially when mixed with the smoke and ash from a wildfire. If any of these fibers are inhaled or ingested, they can lead to aggressive forms of cancer, including lung cancer and mesothelioma. Cancers connected to asbestos do not become noticeable, however, until many years after asbestos exposure. This means someone involved in a wildfire decades ago may be diagnosed with mesothelioma today.

How to Protect Yourself From Asbestos Exposure After a Wildfire

If you are someone who lives in an area that is prone to wildfires, it is important to recognize the possibility of asbestos exposure and prepare yourself and your family in the event of this type of disaster. You should also learn how to protect yourself from asbestos as a firefighter or first responder. Use the following tips to reduce your risk of exposure after a wildfire:

  • Invest in a respirator with a HEPA filter. The right personal protective equipment is critical in avoiding contact with asbestos fibers. A regular face mask does not protect you from inhaling asbestos fibers.
  • Talk to your employer. If you work in a career that could expose you to asbestos, your employer should already be aware of this hazard and have protocols in place to protect you. If not, ask your employer to provide personal protective equipment.
  • Reduce second-hand exposure from clothing. Throw away any of the clothes that you were wearing when involved in a wildfire. This can prevent you from bringing asbestos fibers home with you and exposing your loved ones.

Structures that may contain asbestos include residential homes, schools, banks, power plants and public buildings. The best way to protect yourself from the possibility of asbestos exposure during or after a wildfire is using a HEPA filter and trusting cleanup to the professionals. If your home burns down in a wildfire, do not return until you are approved to do so. Even then, protect yourself from asbestos that may remain in the air or get kicked up in ash and dust with the right protective gear.

When to Contact an Attorney

If you or a loved one was involved in a wildfire in the past, either as a victim or first responder, and have recently been diagnosed with mesothelioma or another illness related to asbestos, contact an attorney right away. You may be eligible for financial compensation from a construction company, the owner of the property, the city or a mesothelioma compensation fund. An attorney can help you understand and protect your legal rights.

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