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Asbestos Exposure in Firefighters

Firefighting is among the most dangerous jobs in the world. In their line of work, firefighters face life-threatening situations, risking their own lives to save people and their homes. These are known risks and ones that individuals accept as part of the job. However, with all the risks and dangers in their work, firefighters should not have to worry about the dangers of asbestos exposure.

Exposure risks are less now than in the past due to new regulations limiting the use of asbestos. However, firefighters are still risk exposure in older buildings that often fall apart as they rush in to fight fires. Also, firefighters often are at risk of exposure in their own fire stations, the places where they eat and sleep. In the past, firefighters even used protective gear that contained asbestos, putting them at risk of developing mesothelioma.

Where Firefighters Encounter Asbestos

Asbestos has long been used in construction. Homes and other buildings that predate the 1980s are likely to contain asbestos. Unless an older building has been inspected for asbestos and the mineral has been abated by professionals, it is likely to still 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 fire fighters 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 likely have asbestos. Since fire fighters 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, fire fighters 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 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 the results of a study in 2016. This study reported on the incidence of cancer in fire fighters. Spanning several years, the study examined more than 18,000 fire fighters, the largest study group of its kind to date.

The study concluded fire fighters 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, fire fighters 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 building collapsed, the air in New York City filled with dust and contaminants. 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 as a result of the World Trade Center incident. Settlements have been awarded to emergency workers, including fire fighters, 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, fire fighters filed suit against the city, winning a settlement to cover lifetime monitoring for asbestos-related illnesses. This settlement 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 fire fighters and their spouses realized the risks that training, claims were filed with the city. Later, a lawsuitwas filed 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 as a result of asbestos exposure.

Everyday, 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 fire fighter, 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.

Page Edited by 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. Connect with Patient Advocate Dave Foster

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