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Health risks from fires with asbestos

Fires will often result in a large smoke plume. If anybody comes into contact with the smoke plume this may cause breathing difficulties, watery eyes, coughing and a sore throat. Individuals with asthma may experience some worsening of their condition. Anybody experiencing these symptoms should recover shortly after the exposure and there are unlikely to be any long term health implications however if you experience any symptoms such as difficulty in breathing, watery eyes or cough following the fire contact your GP or NHS 111.

During fires, asbestos containing materials from a building may be released in the smoke plume. The health risks associated with this are covered in the following questions.

In older buildings asbestos was often used as a component of building materials, such as roofing panels, installation board and floor tiles. When material contains a proportion of asbestos it is usually described as an asbestos containing material or ACM. The majority of asbestos fibres are held tightly within the asbestos containing material and are trapped within the cement.

During the fires often visible fragments of asbestos containing material (ACM) can be carried in the smoke plume and may be deposited on nearby properties, gardens and streets. As the majority of asbestos fibres are held tightly within the asbestos containing material they are not released into the air and this minimises the health risk.

If this material however is handled, crumbles or is broken up and there is a chance that fibres are released in the air. It is only breathing in asbestos fibres that present a health risk. For this reason it is best not to handle the fragments yourself in case they break up in the process, but to leave this to specialists.

If you find debris from a fire involving asbestos containing material on your property or elsewhere you are advised to leave it alone and to contact 0115 915 5555 for advice.

In older buildings asbestos was often used as a component of building materials, such as roofing panels, installation board and floor tiles. Any debris is likely to relate to this material.   

If you find such material, which is unlikely to be further than 50 – 60 metres from the fire site, you should avoid disturbing the material.  As an example, do not mow the lawn until it has been cleared up and removed.

You may also find that you have an amount of dust and soot on your property, this is unlikely to contain any asbestos. We will not be involved in this type of clean up and you are advised to wash surfaces in the normal way using plenty of soap and water.

If you have breathed in dust it is likely to be in a relatively small amount. This single short-term exposure should not significantly affect your health.

Asbestos is present in small quantities in both urban and rural air in the UK and so we are all breathing in small amounts of asbestos fibres over our lifetimes.

The amount you may have breathed in from this one fire is likely to be insignificant in comparison with our overall background exposure during the course of our lives.

If there is no risk from the debris, why do the clean-up teams wear full protective clothing?

The clean-up operation will be done by a specially trained team. As there is the possibility that they will be exposed to asbestos dust on more than one occasion during clean up procedures, their total exposure can be much higher than that of members of the public. For this reason, they are required to wear protective equipment, such as dust masks and overalls, to minimise any potential intake of asbestos.

The carpet will need to be cleaned by specialists. Do not attempt to sweep or vacuum up the debris as this will only create or spread any dust. You are advised to contact us 0115 915 5555 for further advice. In addition, your house contents insurer may also be able to assist.

Any clothing worn at the time of the fire should be washed in lukewarm water for at least 10-15 minutes to remove any trace of asbestos fibres as a precaution.

It is important to reiterate that asbestos fibres are not released into the air as a result of the fire. The majority of asbestos fibres are trapped within material such as debris from roofing which will not have moved more than 50-60 metres from the site. 

Debris should not be handled or crushed as this can release asbestos fibres. This is why it is important to not handle the asbestos containing material from the fire yourself and to let any debris be removed by those that have been trained to do so.

There is evidence to show that breathing in large quantities of asbestos over a long period of time (such as in an occupational setting), can cause a cancer of the lining of the lung called Mesothelioma.

 To encounter any long term health effects from asbestos, a direct exposure by inhaling asbestos fibres would have needed to have taken place over a long period of time.

For fires containing asbestos advice from the UK Health Security Agency is that the risks to health are low and there is unlikely to be any significant exposure to asbestos.

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