Many firefighters come into contact with chemical and environmental hazards, such as asbestos, as part of their job and they may not know they have been exposed. The risk of inhaling asbestos is high, for firefighters especially when they must enter a burning building without adequate respiratory protection.
Firefighters and Mesothelioma Explained
Being a firefighter is an incredibly dangerous job for a number of reasons. Not only do they have to go into burning buildings but, as the buildings burn, the burning materials may contain asbestos. This chemical is given off into the air and inhaled by unsuspecting firefighters. This is especially true of firefighters who must put out fires in older buildings where asbestos was commonly used in their construction.
Nowadays, the firefighting industry has become more aware of the many risks the firefighter is exposed to and understand that, without the proper respirators and other safety equipment, asbestos exposure is likely to occur. For this reason, it is recommended that all firefighters wear respiratory equipment when fighting fires or entering a burning building, even if it means taking a few extra seconds to put on the equipment so as to not become exposed to asbestos.
Even though newer buildings are insulated with non-asbestos-containing insulation, homes built prior to this recommendation are at risk of burning down. A firefighter doesn’t always know the age of the building that is on fire, so they should be sure to use respiratory protection any time they are fighting a fire.
Common Hazards A Firefighter Is Exposed To
The main hazard the firefighter is exposed to is, of course, the fire itself. They protect themselves by wearing fire retardant clothing and using respirator equipment to avoid smoke inhalation. However, these safety measures aren’t always effective in lessening the firefighters risk of being exposed to heat and the chemical in the flames and smoke.
Environmental hazards aside from fire and smoke that a firefighter must deal with include asbestos, which is a mineral that breaks up into tiny, needle-shaped particles. These particles are easily inhaled and can lodge in the lungs of the firefighter. Also, asbestos was used in many parts of housing construction in addition to insulation. There is asbestos in drywall and the insulation of electrical wiring and plumbing fixtures. When these burn, they give off asbestos particles that can be inhaled or ingested by the firefighter.
Firefighters generally don’t come down with an asbestos-related disease such as mesothelioma cancer right after the exposure occurs. There is a lag time between asbestos exposure and the development of an asbestos-related disease. This means that even a retired firefighter is at risk for developing an asbestos-related disease if they used to work in older buildings that contained asbestos as part of their construction. It is usually about 20 to 50 years after exposure that the cancer will arise, meaning that it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly when the firefighter came into contact with asbestos as part of their job.
The Risk of Asbestos Exposure For Firefighters
The riskiest time of exposure to asbestos is when the fire is initially being extinguished. When trying to extinguish a fire, the burning materials become airborne and are found in water particles that float around where the firefighter unwittingly ingests or inhales the material. Many of these materials contain asbestos.
The second riskiest time in a firefighter’s career is after the fire has been extinguished and they are going through the burned out remains of a building looking for hot spots or victims of the fire. Asbestos is very lightweight and lingers in the air after the fire is extinguished. It is during this time that the firefighter might take off their respiratory equipment and unknowingly inhale or ingest asbestos from the materials that have burned. This is why it is recommended that firefighters continue to wear a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) during the entire firefighting process — not only when fighting the fire — to avoid unwanted inhalation or ingestion of asbestos particles.
Unfortunately, firefighters may become exposed to asbestos while living and working within the firehouses as part of their job. Many firehouses are buildings that have been refurbished from older municipal structures that were made with asbestos-containing materials. Asbestos is contained within the electrical and plumbing fixtures in these types of buildings, putting firefighters at risk of inhaling or ingesting asbestos particles as these structures break down over time.
Besides asbestos, firefighters must cope with the risk of inhaling other airborne toxic substances, including hydrogen cyanide, smoke, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. The respiratory equipment doesn’t completely eliminate the risk of inhaling some of these toxins and firefighters often have respiratory problems the longer they work the job. When lungs are compromised from toxic exposures, they are less able to fight off cancers of the lung, including mesothelioma.
To make matters worse, firefighters often suffer from chronic coughs, asthma, chemical allergies and hoarseness. Should mesothelioma develop, the firefighter might feel as though the symptoms they are experiencing is from one of these milder conditions and not lung cancer or mesothelioma.
Besides inhaled asbestos and toxins, some firefighters are exposed to possibly tainted bodily fluids from fire victims. There have been reports of firefighters who developed hepatitis C or HIV disease because of contact with victims who were HIV positive or who were chronic carriers of hepatitis C.
Firefighters are also prone to muscle pain and back pain from carrying heavy equipment. They may develop pain in the chest wall and assume it is from a muscle strain they got as part of their job when, in actuality, the firefighter is experiencing pain from the development of mesothelioma that has begun to grow in the lining the lungs.
Protecting Firefighters from Hazards
Firefighters must protect themselves from the many hazards they face as part of their work. This includes wearing safety equipment such as self-contained breathing apparatuses, or SCBA gear. This type of device can be protective for a firefighter who wears it properly. Such protective equipment can reduce the risk of inhaling respiratory toxins, including inhaled asbestos fibers, and provides the firefighter with breathable air within the device.
SCBA devices are recommended any time the firefighter is actively putting out a fire, as well as during the cooling-off period, when the firefighter is still at the site but isn’t putting out the fire. It is then that the asbestos can be inhaled from burned insulation that has released asbestos fibers into the air.