Firefighting is among the most dangerous jobs in the world, but asbestos exposure in firefighters is often overlooked. Exposure risks are less now than in the past due to regulations limiting the use of asbestos. However, firefighters still risk exposure in older buildings that collapse as they fight fires.
Where Do Firefighters Encounter Asbestos?
Asbestos has long been used in construction. Many homes and other buildings that predate the 1980s contain asbestos. Asbestos may be present in insulation, wall compounds, flooring and ceiling tiles, roofing materials, and furnaces.
When firefighters go into buildings with asbestos, they are at risk of inhaling tiny asbestos fibers, which become airborne as the fire destroys the building materials.
Even fire stations, where firefighters spend much of their time, pose a risk of asbestos exposure. Some stations are older, and maintenance is often neglected because of budget issues. Old fire stations are likely to have asbestos.
Since firefighters spend their days and nights in these older stations, eating and sleeping, they are put at risk of exposure. Firefighters may also be exposed when attempting to make repairs or performing maintenance between fires. Repairs may disrupt previously contained asbestos, sending tiny fibers into the air where they can easily be inhaled.
Through the 1970s, firefighters used protective gear and clothing that contained asbestos. For centuries, asbestos has been used for its ability to resist heat and fire. Because of these useful properties, asbestos was used as a fire retardant in coats, gloves, boots, and other gear.
Some of this gear may still contain asbestos; however, workers from the 1970s and earlier experience the greatest risk of exposure. Now, decades later, these retired firefighters are often being diagnosed with mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases.
Research Confirms Firefighters at Increased Risk for Cancer, Mesothelioma
The United States Fire Administration, together with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, published a study in 2013. This study reported on the incidence of cancer in firefighters. Spanning several years, the study examined more than 30,000 firefighters, the largest study group of its kind to date.
The study concluded firefighters are often exposed to materials that increase their risk for developing a range of cancers, including mesothelioma. Respiratory cancers were the most common types of cancer found in firefighters.
The study also showed the rate of mesothelioma in this group was two times greater than in the general population. Researchers concluded this increased rates of cancer and mesothelioma could be explained by asbestos exposure while fighting fires.
Firefighters, Asbestos, and 9/11
In rare cases, firefighters may be exposed to large quantities of asbestos over a short period of time. This occurred on 9/11 as the World Trade Center towers collapsed. When these large buildings collapsed, dust and contaminants filled the air in New York City.
That dust has already caused health problems in many first responders working that day. The dust contained asbestos from the buildings, putting all workers at risk for developing mesothelioma later in life.
Mesothelioma symptoms do not present until decades after asbestos exposure. It remains to be seen how many World Trade Center mesothelioma cases will develop; however, research has proven these workers are at an elevated risk for other types of cancer. All 9/11 emergency workers are encouraged to receive regular health checks for respiratory illnesses, including mesothelioma.
To date, people with health problems have received nearly one billion dollars in settlements due to the World Trade Center incident. Settlements have been awarded to emergency workers, including firefighters, as well as bystanders near the site.
The biggest settlement was paid out in 2010 by the WTC Captive Insurance Company. This company set aside significant compensation to cover the health care needs of workers and volunteers involved in site cleanup.
Not all mesothelioma lawsuits filed are related to catastrophic events like the World Trade Center attack. In 2011 in Everett, Washington, firefighters filed suit against the city, winning a settlement to cover lifetime monitoring for asbestos-related illnesses. This settlement came after the firefighters were exposed to asbestos during training exercises in 2007.
The training took place in city-owned houses known to contain asbestos. When firefighters and their spouses realized the risks of that training, they filed claims with the city. Many later filed lawsuits seeking damages.
The city settled, agreeing to pay medical monitoring for mesothelioma and other illnesses rather than paying one large amount. The City of Everett is also obligated to pay medical expenses that arise from asbestos exposure.
Every day, firefighters face huge risks in the course of their jobs; however, they should not have to risk asbestos exposure or the threat of mesothelioma. If you or a loved one worked as a firefighter, were exposed to asbestos, and developed cancer or mesothelioma, you have a right to seek compensation. Employers must take precautions to prevent asbestos exposure. When they fail to keep employees safe, those workers have the right to seek both justice and compensation.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.