9 INVESTIGATES: Firefighters train in building with dangerous asbestos

By: Ken Lemon

Updated:

GASTONIA, N.C. - A Channel 9 investigation has uncovered that 130 Gastonia firefighters were put in harm's way while training to save lives.

During a fire training exercise at the old Sears department store building, it was discovered that there were dangerous asbestos tiles just below the roof.

Concerned firefighters told Eyewitness News reporter Ken Lemon they were called in December to train on the roof of the building. They said almost every one of Gastonia's 130 firefighters cut holes in the roof and many used sledge hammers.

The Gastonia fire chief said some of those firefighters damaged the old asbestos tiles.

Documents obtained by Channel 9 showed that in August 2016, engineers for the city of Gastonia suspected that there was asbestos inside the building, but the firefighters were never alerted. 

City officials learned about the firefighters' training at the old Sears building months later and changed its policy to make sure all buildings are inspected before training. They also self-reported the incident to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The OSHA report on the incident said the Fire Department, "Did not exercise due diligence to inform firefighters about the presence and location of asbestos containing material prior to conducting training, potentially exposing firefighters to asbestos."

The city received a $77,000 fine from OSHA that was later reduced to $33,000.

A city spokeswoman said all firefighters have been offered free annual medical surveillance for asbestos. 

Asbestos Dangers 

The danger of asbestos and how it was handled, in this case hit with an ax, means it can separate into microscopic-size particles that stay in the air and can be easily inhaled.

The Centers for Disease and Control said exposure can cause life-threatening disease, such as lung cancer or mesothelioma.

[LINK: CDC information on asbestos]

It can take years for symptoms to develop so the firefighters could have medical surveillance for 30 years or more.

In the 1970s, the U.S. banned many uses of asbestos. It has been limited to only a few items like car brakes. 

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