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Firefighters and Asbestos Cancer

Every day, firefighters report to work with the understanding that they may have to put their lives on the line to protect people and property. They have trained hard to pursue the occupation they love, and we can all sleep a little easier knowing that they are on the job. Smoke, flames, and falling debris. When the bell rings, these brave men and women face all kinds of dangers. But one of the most perilous hazards in this line of duty is not always as easy to see, and it is potentially just as deadly — it’s called asbestos. Exposure to asbestos is the only known cause of an aggressive form of cancer called mesothelioma. Although mesothelioma is a fast-moving disease, accurately diagnosing it can take a long time because the symptoms can take 30 to 50 years to develop. Firefighters can be exposed to asbestos in several different ways, but some are more common than others.

How Are Firefighters Exposed to Asbestos?

From flooring tile to roofing materials to insulation, asbestos-containing products were used in the construction of many commercial buildings and houses built before the 1980s. Undisturbed, asbestos does not usually pose a risk — that is why we don’t see more people suffering from asbestos-related diseases. However, when asbestos-containing products are damaged or begin to break down as an older building goes up in flames, tiny fibers can be released into the air. When inhaled or swallowed these fibers can become trapped inside a firefighter’s lungs, abdomen, or heart, and eventually cause mesothelioma.

Firefighters often wear self-contained breathing apparatus. These devices allow them to survive in smoke-filled buildings. They also help keep asbestos fibers from entering the lungs. However, after a fire has been extinguished, this equipment may not always be used during the mop-up phase — when dangerous asbestos fibers can still be floating in the air. These fibers can be inhaled or even stick to a firefighter’s clothing and then be carried back to the station or home, where others can be exposed. Asbestos is extremely heat resistant and a powerful insulator. So it’s no surprise to discover that before the dangers of asbestos were widely known to the public, manufacturers who were aware of the risks of using asbestos chose to use it as an ingredient in the production of firefighting gear. The unfortunate reality is that if you are a retired firefighter, there’s a chance that the very equipment that was supposed to protect you could actually have caused you to develop mesothelioma.

Study Shows Increased Risk of Mesothelioma for Firefighters

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), in collaboration with the National Cancer Institute and the Department of Public Health Sciences in the University of California at Davis, studied cancer and cancer deaths among almost 30,000 firefighters from 3 large U.S. cities. They found that the firefighters had a rate of mesothelioma 2 times greater than the rate in the U.S. population as a whole. This study was important because it was the first to identify mesothelioma’s deadly impact on the firefighting community.