The Firefighting Authority is putting into place new safety measures for handling asbestos fires, which may pose firefighters their greatest health risk. Yesterday’s fire in Keshet gave firefighters their first opportunity to try out new regulations. The firefighters used protective equipment and washed themselves afterward to minimize their exposure to asbestos.
Firefighters around the world have a life expectancy that is 10 years shorter than average, probably due to exposure to smoke, toxins and asbestos, Israel Fire Commissioner Shimon Romach said yesterday. The new regulations were drafted by Yitzhak Shalev, whom the Firefighting Authority appointed national asbestos officer two years ago.
There have been more than 100 asbestos fires this year, more than a third of them at illegal garbage dumps, said Shalev. Even more may have gone unreported. Furthermore, there are millions of square meters of asbestos in buildings and garbage dumps around the country, he said. Asbestos is a carcinogen, and exposure, even to only a few fibers, can cause several kinds of cancer and a fatal lung disease. The exposure is sometimes only discovered decades later.
Fires make asbestos slabs crumble and release their dust into the air, from where it enters the respiratory system. Special gear can protect against this. Until recently, there had been no regulations on handling asbestos fires, and firefighters were frequently unaware that a danger even existed.
Shalev said he was appointed to tackle the issue after warning Romach of the problem two years ago. He drafted a method to deal with asbestos fires, including using protective gear and coordinating with various bodies, such as the Environmental Protection Ministry, to remove the asbestos once the fire is out.
Five years ago, a Labor and Welfare Ministry study on firefighters found higher-than-average rates of breathing and hearing problems. “We didn’t check life expectancy nor exposure to specific substances,” said Dr. Yehudit Shaham, who conducted the study. Dr. Avi Wiener, director of the Institute of Preventive Occupational Medicine at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, also cited studies showing that firefighters’ life expectancy is shorter than average. “One of the assumptions is that this is due to exposure to toxins…”