Four factory buildings in Wolverhampton caught fire last week, causing a health scare for local residents. It was feared that asbestos fibres might have been released during the fire, posing a health threat for those living nearby.
Although many people were evacuated from their homes at the time of the fire, those who remained were advised to stay inside and keep all their windows shut. A Public Health England (PHE) spokesperson said:
“The site involved in this fire may have an asbestos cement roof and it is possible that these materials may have been released in the smoke plume and deposited in ash and debris on nearby properties and streets, and over the vicinity.”
Friability of asbestos cement
According to PHE, the health risks to local residents were not high because the nature of asbestos cement means it has low friability. The cement bonds the asbestos fibres, rather than readily releasing them when the material is disturbed.
Friability is the term used to describe the likelihood of an asbestos-containing material to crumble or disintegrate. Asbestos cement products are known to be one of the least friable ACMs, with the most significant danger being associated with loose-fill and sprayed asbestos coatings.
Nevertheless, Public Health England warned anyone in the region to avoid any ash or debris they found in their gardens or on the streets, and advised that the local council would arrange for specialist contractors to decontaminate the area where necessary.
In a statement they said:
“There is no direct evidence of long-term health risks from fires involving asbestos-containing materials but it is sensible that any asbestos containing debris is removed to minimise any potential exposure.”
Strong winds may have dispersed asbestos particles over a wide area
Unfortunately, adverse weather conditions may have resulted in asbestos dust and fibres being carried over a large area, as fire crews battled to control the fire in strong winds. Four factory units were burnt down in total, with fire fighters still damping down the buildings hours after the fire started.
Over 60 firefighters attended the scene at the industrial estate, and for a while struggled to prevent the flames damaging other units in the area. They used hydraulic platforms to gain control of the situation, as flames rose 12 feet above the buildings.
Asbestos risk for firefighters
Firefighters are at serious risk of exposure to asbestos given the widespread presence of asbestos in our older buildings. Asbestos awareness training now provides the knowledge needed to mitigate some of these risks, however – something that was not available in previous decades.
Fire crews in the 1960s and 1970s were not always provided with the protective masks and breathing equipment they needed to stay safe, even when faced with the dangers of asbestos.
The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 made the provision of asbestos training compulsory for employers. It has helped to save many lives, made employers responsible for their workers’ safety, and brought much-needed awareness to a serious workplace issue.