Fire Prevention & Protection, Firefighting, Structural Firefighting

Construction Concerns: Hazardous Building Materials

Article and photos by Gregory Havel

Any building in today’s world contains materials that are hazardous to our health. They range from materials that can be toxic with short-term or low-level exposure to those that can be toxic or carcinogenic years after exposure to those that are only irritants.

Common hazards of building materials include the following:

  • Respirable silica is found in sand, concrete, brick, Portland Cement, ceramic tile, stone, and other materials made of stone or earth (photo 1). Silica is a respiratory irritant, and long-term exposure can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Lead is found in paint; plumbing pipes, solder, connectors; roof flashings; and in fasteners; mostly in buildings constructed before the mid-1970s. Lead and all of its compounds are toxic and cannot be made nontoxic. It causes kidney, nervous system, and other organ damage.
  • Asbestos is found in insulation, boilers, pipe covering (photo 2), plaster, vinyl floor tile, glazing compound, caulking compound, roofing materials, drywall board and taping compound, linoleum, flooring and other adhesives, acoustical materials, fireproofing insulation, and exterior siding materials. Most asbestos found in buildings was used before the mid-1980s, although some imported materials still contain it today. Asbestos is a respiratory irritant; it can cause COPD and is known to cause cancer.
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are found in electrical transformers, light fixture ballasts, and in other electrical equipment (photo 3). PCBs are accumulative toxins and cause liver and skin problems, organ damage, and other disease. Although PCBs have not been used in the United States in new electrical equipment for more than 20 years, equipment containing PCBs is still in use.
  • Glass fiber is found in insulation and is used as reinforcement in plastics. Glass fiber is an eye, skin, and respiratory irritant.
  • Mineral wool is found in insulation and is used as reinforcement in vinyl composition floor tiles, is an eye, skin, and respiratory irritant. Mineral wool sometimes contains silica; it may contain asbestos.
  • Cadmium is used as a rust inhibitor on hardware, and in paints. The fumes caused by heating are known to cause cancer.
  • Asphalt is used as a sealant, in adhesives, and in many roofing materials. Asphalt fumes are a respiratory system, eye, and skin irritant; prolonged exposure is known to cause cancer.
  • Radioactive isotopes, used in ionization-type smoke detectors and in compact fluorescent lamps, are hazardous in themselves. In addition to emitting several types of radioactive particles as they decay, radioactive substances can cause cancer as well as radiation poisoning and other illnesses.

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Fortunately, all of these hazardous materials are stable and are contained or encapsulated during normal use. They pose no hazard to the building’s occupants or to firefighters under normal conditions.

If there is a fire in a building containing these materials, they will be released and can contaminate our personal protective equipment (PPE). These contaminants will be in addition to the products of combustion that we have studied beginning in Fire Fighter I:

  • Cyanide compounds (molecules of carbon, nitrogen, and other elements) are all toxic and affect us immediately after sufficient exposure.
  • Acids and other corrosives.
  • Ash and other noncombustible particulates, including asbestos and silica.
  • Condensed vapors and gases, including phosgene, vinyl chloride and other plastics
  • Unburned carbon.

Some of these contaminants are absorbed through the skin. Others are inhaled or ingested.

Firefighters need to be concerned about the contaminants on their PPE after interior and exterior structural firefighting. It should be a part of our normal operation to conduct a gross decontamination of firefighters leaving the hot zone at a structure fire, using a low-pressure hoseline with plain water. See NFPA 1851, Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Firefighting and Proximity Firefighting 2008 edition, Chapter 7; especially 7.2.3; for details. This gross decontamination will remove the visible debris and contaminants and flush away a large part of the invisible contamination. This must be done for each firefighter before gloves, SCBA face piece, or any other part of the PPE is removed. After each exposure to products of combustion, our PPE should be further decontaminated by laundering or cleaning as the manufacturer recommends.

Procedures as simple as gross decontamination before removing PPE, laundering PPE after exposure, and showering could be the key to reducing the high rates of some types of cancer experienced by firefighters, and will reduce the possibility of other types of illness and irritation caused by chemical and particle exposure.



Gregory Havel is a member of the Burlington (WI) Fire Department; a retired deputy chief and training officer; and a 30-year veteran of the fire service. He is a Wisconsin-certified fire instructor II and fire officer II, an adjunct instructor in fire service programs at Gateway Technical College, and safety director for Scherrer Construction Co., Inc. Havel has a bachelor’s degree from St. Norbert College; has more than 30 years of experience in facilities management and building construction; and has presented classes at FDIC.


Subjects: Building construction for firefighters