When firefighters are called to extinguish a fire in an older building, the flames may not be their only hazard. Many older buildings contain asbestos, a durable mineral that’s now known to cause the rare and aggressive cancer mesothelioma. Firefighters are twice as likely to develop mesothelioma than the general population because of their high rates of asbestos exposure.
Why Are Firefighters at Risk of Mesothelioma?
Firefighters are at risk of developing mesothelioma if they come in contact with asbestos, the only known cause of this cancer.
Asbestos is a durable mineral that’s resistant to heat, water, and sound — which made it a choice building material throughout most of the 20th century. In fact, from the 1930s to the late 1970s, asbestos was used to construct nearly all homes and other buildings.
When buildings catch on fire, deteriorate, or are otherwise damaged, asbestos fibers can become airborne. As firefighters work to put out the blazes, they may unknowingly inhale the fibers, increasing their risk of developing mesothelioma.
How Asbestos Exposure Causes Mesothelioma
- Microscopic asbestos fibers enter the body and get trapped in the linings of major organs
- The fibers cause healthy tissues to become inflamed and scarred
- After several decades of irritation, cancer tumors form
It takes 20-50 years before asbestos exposure may cause mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease. Due to this long process, firefighters exposed to asbestos decades ago may only now be at risk of mesothelioma.
How Are Firefighters at Risk of Asbestos Exposure?
Firefighters are usually exposed to asbestos from burning buildings. However, they can also be exposed from their protective gear, in their fire stations, or if asbestos fibers linger in the air after a fire is put out.
Firefighters face the highest risk of exposure when trying to put out fires in older buildings made with asbestos-containing products. Modern-day firefighters may not know whether a building contains asbestos, so they must use respiratory protection to avoid exposure.
Building parts known to have contained asbestos include:
- Boiler systems
- Electrical wiring
Personal protective equipment (PPE) such as fire-resistant suits and gloves often contained asbestos to protect wearers from the heat of fires. Modern-day PPE for firefighters no longer uses asbestos.
Firehouses built through the late 1970s often contained asbestos-based products like shingles and roofing. When these products broke down over time, they put firefighters at risk of exposure.
Older asbestos-based firehouses can even put modern-day firefighters in danger. For example, in 2019, a federal lawsuit alleged that a firefighter was exposed to asbestos in the fire station in which he worked.
Fire Cleanup Sites
Firefighters can also be exposed to asbestos after a fire has been extinguished.
As a fire burns, flames and air currents can send asbestos fibers into the surrounding environment. If a firefighter removes their respiratory equipment at the scene of the fire, once it has been put out, they may inhale or ingest asbestos without notice.
Secondhand Asbestos Exposure
Airborne asbestos fibers can stick to a firefighter’s PPE, hair, and skin. Firefighters may bring these fibers back home and expose their families to asbestos without realizing it. This is known as secondhand asbestos exposure.