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Asbestos Exposure in Firefighters

Firefighting is among the most dangerous jobs in the world. They face life-threatening situations every time they go out to fight a fire and they risk their own lives to save people and their homes. These are known risks and ones that individuals accept as part of the job, but what firefighters should not have to deal with is exposure to asbestos.

Exposure risks are less now than they were in the past because of regulations that limit how asbestos is used. However, firefighters are still at risk of being exposed to asbestos in older homes and buildings that fall apart as they run into them to save people and fight fires, and also in their own fire stations, where they eat and sleep. Fire fighters have even used asbestos protective gear, which may have put past workers at risk for mesothelioma.

Where Firefighters Encounter Asbestos

Asbestos has long been used in construction, and homes and buildings that date to before the 1980s are likely to still contain a lot of asbestos. Unless an older building has been inspected for asbestos and abated by professionals it is likely to contain the mineral 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 the fibers which may come lose as the fire destroys the materials in the building.

Even the fire stations in which fire fighters spend so much of their time, there is a risk of exposure to asbestos. Some stations are older and maintenance may get neglected because of budget issues. Old fire stations likely have asbestos and when fire fighters spend their days and nights in them, eating and sleeping, they are put at risk of exposure. They may also be exposed when attempting to make repairs and taking on maintenance chores in between fires. Repairs may disrupt previously contained asbestos and send fibers into the air.

Through the 1970s, fire fighters used protective gear and clothing with asbestos in them. Asbestos has long been known to resist heat and fire, so it was used like a fire retardant in coats, gloves, boots, and other type of gear. Some of this gear today may still have some asbestos, but it is the workers from the 1970s and earlier who were put at the biggest risk. They are at risk of being diagnosed now, in retirement, with mesothelioma.

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 the results of a study in 2016 that reported on the incidence of cancer in fire fighters. Spanning several years, the study looked at more than 18,000 fire fighters, the largest study group of its kind to date.

The results of the study were that fire fighters are in fact exposed to materials that put them at a greater risk for developing a range of cancers, like mesothelioma. Respiratory cancers were the most common types of cancer in these workers. The study also showed that the rate of mesothelioma in this group was two times greater than in the general population of the U.S. The study also concluded that this could be explained by exposure to asbestos while fighting fires.

Firefighters, Asbestos, and 9/11

In rare instances fire fighters may be exposed to large quantities of asbestos over a short period of time. This happened on September 11th as the World Trade Center towers collapsed and filled the air with dust and a variety of contaminants. That dust has already caused health problems in many of the first responders working that day. The dust contained asbestos from the buildings and put all of the workers at risk for developing mesothelioma later.

Mesothelioma symptoms do not usually become apparent until decades after exposure to asbestos. It remains to be seen how many World Trade Center mesothelioma cases will develop, but research has already proven that these workers are at an elevated risk for other types of cancer. All emergency workers that day, and in the days after, have been encouraged to get regular health checks for respiratory illnesses, including mesothelioma.


To date, nearly one billion dollars in settlements have been awarded to people with health problems as a result of the World Trade Center incident. These awards have gone to emergency workers, like fire fighters, as well as to bystanders and others who were near the site on the day of the attacks and the days after. The biggest settlement was paid out in 2010 by the WTC Captive Insurance Company. It set aside significant compensation to cover the health care needs of workers and volunteers involved in the cleanup of the site.

Not all mesothelioma lawsuits filed over fire fighters and asbestos were related to such catastrophic events as the World Trade Center attack. In Everett, Washington, in 2011 fire fighters filed suit against the city and won a settlement that would cover lifetime monitoring for asbestos-related illnesses. This came after the fire fighters were exposed to asbestos during training exercises in 2007.

The training took place in city-owned houses, known to contain asbestos. When the fire fighters and their spouses realized the risks of having trained in those houses, they filed a claim with the city and then a lawsuit seeking damages. The city settled with an agreement to pay medical monitoring for mesothelioma and other illnesses instead of paying out one large amount. The city is also obligated to pay any medical expenses that arise as a result of the asbestos exposure.

Fire fighters take great risks on the job, but they should not be put at risk of exposure to asbestos or of developing mesothelioma. If you or a loved one worked as a fire fighter and developed cancer, mesothelioma, or were exposed to asbestos, you have a right to seek compensation. Employers, like cities, have a responsibility to take precautions against asbestos exposure, and when they don’t, workers can seek justice.

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