Firefighters and Asbestos Exposure

According to the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), cancer is now the leading cause of death among firefighters. Joseph Finn, the Boston Fire Commissioner, was recently quoted calling cancer an “epidemic” among first responders. Asbestos and other toxic substances found at many fire and rescue sites put brave firefighters at risk of developing lethal cancers and illnesses. Now, organizations are diligently working to understand and prevent occupational asbestos exposure, in hopes of lowering the number of firefighters who develop cancer as a result of their courageous work.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that firefighters face a 9 percent increase in cancer diagnoses and a 14 percent increase in cancer-related deaths, compared to general U.S. population. Efforts are underway to establish preventative measures going forward to protect firefighters.

Because of the increased risk of exposure to toxic substances, firefighters and first responders should talk with their doctors about potential health risks and request early cancer screenings. Early detection can have a significant effect on a cancer prognosis, especially one as aggressive as mesothelioma.

History of Asbestos Use in the U.S.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was mined and leveraged as a commercial material starting in the late 1800s. Its use skyrocketed during World War II. Highly regarded for its durability and fire-resistant properties, asbestos made its way into a multitude of commercial and residential applications.

The applications of asbestos are far-reaching. It was used for insulation, fireproofing, and soundproofing, making its way into cement, flooring, roofing, and drywall. The Navy used it to insulate boilers and pipes. It was even used in automobile brake and clutch pads, potting soils, and beauty products. Unfortunately, asbestos was later found to be toxic to humans, being categorized as a Group 1 carcinogen, or cancer-causing substance, by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a final rule banning most new products from containing asbestos.  

When in place and undisturbed, asbestos is not dangerous. However, when damaged, its small fibers release into the air, posing a serious risk of ingestion or inhalation. Once the fibers enter the body, they have no way of being expelled. Over time, they weave their way into the mesothelium (the protective lining of the lungs, abdomen, and heart) and can lead to significant health conditions.

Asbestos-Related Illnesses Facing Firefighters

Firefighters are highly susceptible to asbestos-related illnesses as a result of on-duty exposure. Exposure to asbestos has been linked to a number of health conditions, and, unfortunately, it still lurks in older buildings and homes (particularly those built before the 1970s). During a fire, airborne asbestos fibers may be inhaled or latch onto protective gear or tools, which are brought back to the fire station after the fire itself has been extinguished.

The asbestos fibers have the potential to form benign or malignant tumors, although this can take years or even decades to occur. Some of the asbestos-related diseases firefighters face include:

  • Asbestosis
    • Asbestosis is a lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos. The condition can cause coughing, shortness of breath, and scarring of the lung tissue resulting in permanent damage. According to the Center for Disease Control, asbestosis is responsible for roughly 1,300 deaths per year.
  • Lung cancer
    • Thousands of lung cancer cases reported each year are linked to past asbestos exposure. The CDC estimates between 8,500 and 10,600 deaths per year result from asbestos-related lung cancer.
  • Mesothelioma
    • The rarest and potentially most severe of all asbestos-related illnesses affecting firefighters is mesothelioma. This cancer affects the mesothelium and is often found in advanced, less treatable stages. Mesothelioma accounts for roughly 3,300 cases annually.
  • Pleural plaque, thickening, and/or effusion
    • Asbestos fibers lodged in the pleura (lining of the lungs) can cause thickening of the tissue or fluid buildup around the lungs, resulting in chest pain and shortness of breath. The seriousness of the condition is dependent on whether breathing is affected and if it can be treated.

A 2013 study conducted by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) found that firefighters are twice as likely to develop mesothelioma. Many organizations are taking initiative to lower this number and prevent firefighters’ exposure to asbestos.

Safety Tips to Avoid Asbestos Exposure

Firefighters are at a higher risk of contact with carcinogens like benzene, formaldehyde, and asbestos, mainly from the inhalation of smoke or diesel exhaust. Clothing and equipment can transfer these substances, potentially resulting in secondhand exposure. Minimize your contamination risk and exposure by following these safety tips.

Mesothelioma Hub - Firefighters Safety Tips

  • Decontaminate all personal protective equipment (PPE) in the field to remove as many contaminants as possible before returning to the station.
  • Properly clean all PPE after all fires.
  • Store PPE in a dedicated area separate from living quarters.
  • Shower at the station after a fire before returning home.
  • Remember to always use your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), even during clean-up and overhaul activities.

Additionally, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and its research affiliate, the Fire Protection Research Foundation, have set three initiatives in place to help limit firefighter exposure to carcinogenic contaminants.

  1. Effectively Cleaning PPE: The foundation is working to find science-backed cleaning methods to remove toxic chemicals, biological pathogens, and other hazardous substances from firefighter PPE. The “Validation of Cleaning Procedures for Firefighter PPE” study is currently being conducted to identify the dangerous materials found on soiled PPE and outline sanitation procedures to eradicate them.
  2. Contamination Control: Contaminants are not contained to fire grounds — they are often tracked back to the station on PPE, hoses, and other tools, sometimes making their way into the vehicles and homes of off-duty firefighters. The “Campaign for Fire Service Contamination Control” aims to provide education about how to limit the spreading of carcinogenic substances.
  3. Long-term Cancer Study: With the 30-year “Firefighter Cancer Cohort Study,” which is currently underway, doctors hope to understand what exposures are responsible for causing cancer in firefighters and uncover most effective ways to reduce these exposures.

Compensation for 9/11 Asbestos Exposure

Sadly, many firefighters and first responders deployed during the September 11 terrorist attacks were exposed to toxic substances. When the towers collapsed, a toxic plume of soot and dust was released into the air. Included in the dangerous cloud were lead, mercury, and asbestos.

Seventeen years later, many of those brave heroes have either died or still suffer from respiratory issues, including lung cancer and mesothelioma. The New York City Fire Department estimates upward of 9,000 firefighters are at a higher risk for developing cancers, especially rescue workers and clean-up crews.

Due to the damaging occupational exposure, the United States government created the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, an $8.1 billion fund to help provide medical care to those adversely affected by the attacks. There have been several other massive lawsuits to recover monetary losses for those who have developed debilitating health problems. Because asbestos-related illnesses like mesothelioma take a long time to develop (20 to 40 years in many cases, and sometimes even longer), it’s expected that lawsuits connecting these conditions with 9/11 exposure will peak somewhere between 2021 and 2041.

Police officers, paramedics, construction workers, and volunteers who worked at Ground Zero are all at risk of developing cancer or other asbestos-related illnesses. If you or someone you know was a 9/11 first responder and is showing any symptoms associated with mesothelioma, the individual should speak with their doctor right away. If you or a loved one was involved in the rescue and recovery efforts of 9/11 and has developed a life-threatening condition such as cancer, contact a lawyer right away to learn more about filing a claim.

Additional Resources for Firefighters

The following organizations have been established to assist firefighters with occupational-related cancers:

On July 7, 2018, the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act was signed into law, requiring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop and maintain a national cancer registry for firefighters.

The Act will allow researchers to study the link between firefighters and the risk of occupational cancers, in hopes of developing new procedures and safeguards to protect firefighters in the line of duty. Learn more about the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act of 2018.