It has long been known that firefighters and other first responders face a higher risk of exposure to asbestos, the deadly toxic mineral that causes mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. A recent study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has made it crystal clear exactly what that risk means and how endangered our first responders are.
The study, which was published in the most recent issue of the journal, “Occupational and Environmental Medicine,” indicates that firefighters face higher rates of several different types of cancer as compared to the general population. When it comes to mesothelioma, their rate of diagnosis and death from the disease represents twice that of the rest of the United States population.
Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that can affect the lining of the lungs, the pericardium and the peritoneum. It is caused by exposure to asbestos, a mineral that was used extensively in building insulation, as well as in a number of industrial applications because of its usefulness as a flame and heat retardant.
Asbestos has actually been used in the protective gear that firefighters wore, so it is no wonder that they face a higher risk of inhaling the fibers as they break down.
Over the last several years there has been a great deal of discussion about the risks that firefighters and other emergency personnel face from exposure to asbestos. Since the substance was used so extensively in building and construction throughout the late 19th century and throughout most of the 20th century, any building constructed during that era that either runs a high risk of containing the deadly toxic material.
As asbestos ages it begins to break down, making it more likely that it can be inhaled or ingested. Recent natural disasters such as tornadoes and hurricanes as well as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. unleashed an untold amount of asbestos dust that the firefighters had an inordinate exposure to as they went about their life-saving duties.
The study was conducted in 2009 and involved surveys done of 30,000 firefighters working in the major metropolitan areas of Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco and who had been hired since 1950.
The study was funded by the U.S. Fire Administration and was a collaborative effort that included the Department of Public Health Sciences in the University of California at Davis and the National Cancer Institute.