Firefighting is among the most dangerous jobs in the world, but asbestos exposure in firefighters is often overlooked. The rate of asbestos-related mesothelioma in firefighters is twice the rate in the general population. Exposure risks are less now than in the past due to regulations limiting the use of asbestos, but firefighters still risk exposure in older buildings
Are Firefighters Exposed to Asbestos?
Firefighters put their lives on the line all the time to keep people safe. In addition to the obvious dangers of fires and collapsing buildings, firefighters face the risk of exposure to harmful substances, including asbestos.
Asbestos is a less obvious danger but a known risk for people who work in firefighting. It is essential that firefighters are aware of the risks and potential consequences and how to minimize harm.
How Are Firefighters Exposed to Asbestos?
Asbestos was heavily used in many industries for decades. The asbestos that lingers in buildings, vehicles, and machinery put firefighters at risk of exposure.
Asbestos in Old Buildings
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.
Asbestos in Fire Stations
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.
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.
Asbestos in Firefighting Gear
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.
Asbestos in Trucks and Equipment
Most vehicles and heavy equipment made during the period of peak asbestos used contained asbestos. It was found in brakes, clutches, gaskets, seals, valves, and more. Fire trucks had asbestos in fire hoses.
Firefighters risked exposure through equipment and vehicles in the past, but there may still be some risk today. When asbestos parts wear down or are disrupted by repair and maintenance work, fibers can be released, exposing anyone in the area.
Secondhand Asbestos Exposure in Firefighting
Firefighters carry hazardous substances on their gear when returning from a fire. This could include fibers of asbestos that contaminated firehouses, exposing the other workers.
Firefighters exposed to asbestos might have carried fibers home on their clothing too. Fibers attached to clothing can contaminate the home and cause secondhand exposure in family members. Secondhand exposure to asbestos can be just as harmful as primary exposure.
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 of 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 rate of cancer and mesothelioma could be explained by asbestos exposure while fighting fires.
Cancer Is the Leading Cause of Death for Firefighters
It might come as a surprise to some, considering the other dangers of the job, but research now shows that cancer is the number one cause of death among firefighters.
The International Association of Fire Fighters reported that cancer was the cause of death in 74% of firefighters who died in 2022. In fact, the International Agency on the Research of Cancer recently reclassified firefighting as a group one carcinogen, something that causes cancer.
Some firefighters get diagnoses of rare cancers like mesothelioma or are diagnosed at a younger age than is normal. Asbestos is one of many harmful substances contributing to this terrible phenomenon.
What Other Types of Cancer or Illnesses Do Firefighters Get?
Pleural mesothelioma is just one type of asbestos-related illness a firefighter might develop over many years. Asbestos can also cause:
- Peritoneal mesothelioma. This is the abdominal form of mesothelioma. It is less common than pleural mesothelioma.
- Asbestosis. Asbestosis is progressive scarring of the lungs caused by asbestos fibers. It is not curable but also not malignant.
- Lung cancer. Lung cancer is much more common than pleural mesothelioma but also has more causes. Asbestos can cause or contribute to lung cancer.
- Pleural plaques. Plaques are thickened areas of the pleural tissue around the lungs. It is the most common condition associated with asbestos. Pleural plaques do not necessarily develop into mesothelioma but they indicate an individual is at risk for cancer.
Firefighters are also vulnerable to diseases caused by asbestos and other toxins. These can include a coallpased lung, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and many types of cancer.
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 for 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.
Firefighter and Asbestos Lawsuits
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 healthcare 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 for 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.
How Can Firefighters Lower Their Risk of Asbetos Illnesses?
If you are a firefighter, you have an inherently dangerous job. Asbestos, however, should not cause so many illnesses and deaths. Know your rights to a safe workplace and appropriate safety training, gear, and other precautions.
If you do not feel you are being provided with all the information, skills, and gear needed to lower the risk of asbestos exposure, take action. You can file a complaing with OSHA. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets workplace regulations and will investigate reports of non-compliance.
Even with good safety precautions, coming into contact with asbestos as a firefighter is inevitable. These are additional things you can do to lower your own risk of exposure and illness:
- Learn all appropriate safety measures and rules by attending training sessions.
- Wear protective equipment for every job, including a respirator to avoid inhaling fibers.
- Follow guidelines for decontaminating gear after a fire.
- Shower and change clothes before going home.
- Request regular health screenings.
What to Do if You Have Been Diagnosed with an Asbestos Illness
Every day, firefighters face huge risks in the course of their jobs. Even when falling all safety regulations, exposure to harmful toxins occur. If you think you were exposed to asbestos, talk to your doctor about being screened for related illnesses.
Know the symptoms of mesothelioma and asbestos illnesses, which include coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, and chest pains.
If you or a loved one worked as a firefighter and now have mesothelioma, you have a right to seek compensation. An asbestos attorney can help you determine who is liable for your exposure and provide options.
Filing a lawsuit can lead to a settlement or jury verdict. If any companies involved went bankrupt, you might be eligible for a claim with an asbestos trust. Act quickly to get the justice you deserve before it’s too late.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Written by Mary Ellen Ellis
Mary Ellen Ellis has been the head writer for Mesothelioma.net since 2016. With hundreds of mesothelioma and asbestos articles to her credit, she is one of the most experienced writers on these topics. Her degrees and background in science and education help her explain complicated medical topics for a wider audience. Mary Ellen takes pride in providing her readers with the critical information they need following a diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness.
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.