Every day, firefighters risk their lives saving others. In addition to the obvious risks that firefighters face to extinguish flames, they are also subject to a less commonly recognized danger posed by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos exposure can cause disabling and fatal diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma – an aggressive form of cancer that affects the membranes covering the lungs and other organs.

firefighters mesothelioma

What is Asbestos and Why Are Firefighters at Risk?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral which is also a known human carcinogen – it causes cancer.  Because of its qualities as a fire-retardant and heat insulator, asbestos was also used in an enormous variety of building materials including plaster, drywall materials, floor tiles, roofing products, wall and ceiling insulation and electric wiring insulation. This means that when firefighters are battling a fire (especially one built before the 1980’s) they may be surrounded by hundreds of different asbestos containing building materials.  During a fire, asbestos may become “friable” or airborne and create a potentially deadly cloud of floating asbestos dust.

When the fire is thought to be extinguished, firefighters often pull down ceilings or pipes or create openings in walls to check for other burning areas.  This potentially exposes the firefighter to more asbestos dust.

Of course firefighters wear protective clothing, uniforms and breathing gear.  Such equipment can protect them from asbestos, but once the gear is removed at or near a fire they may be exposed to clouds of microscopic asbestos fibers.  In addition, if contaminated clothing is not handled properly, it can pose a risk to anyone who comes in contact with it.

Brief Asbestos Exposure Can Lead to Mesothelioma Disease

Although the health risks from asbestos increase with heavier exposure and longer exposure time, researchers have found mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases in individuals with only brief exposures.  According to some doctors, even one asbestos fiber, lodged in the wrong place, can eventually cause an asbestos-related disease.  Generally, those who develop asbestos-related diseases show no signs of illness for a long time after their initial asbestos exposure.  This “latency period” can take decades for symptoms of an asbestos-related condition to appear.  It is not uncommon for mesothelioma victims to have been exposed to asbestos 30 or 50 years before they were diagnosed.  Therefore, firefighters must be vigilant to ensure that asbestos exposure today does not result in disease in the future.

Secondary Exposure

There are many examples of patients diagnosed with mesothelioma who were never directly exposed to asbestos themselves.  For many of these people, contact with asbestos was the result of contact with other persons who brought the fibers home on their clothes.  For example, there are women who were diagnosed with mesothelioma because they washed their husbands asbestos covered clothes.  There are also examples of children who were exposed to the deadly fibers after hugging a parent who came home with asbestos in their hair or on their clothes.  Some of these children were later diagnosed with asbestos-related disease as adults.  Therefore, firefighters should take all necessary steps to prevent their loved ones from becoming exposed to asbestos through their contaminated clothing, uniforms, or other equipment.

What is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is caused by asbestos.  It is a disease in which cells of the mesothelium become abnormal and divide without control. The mesothelium is a membrane that covers and protects most of the internal organs of the body.  It is composed of two layers of cells: one layer immediately surrounds the organ; the other forms a sac around it. The mesothelium has different names, depending on its location in the body. The peritoneum is the mesothelial tissue that covers most of the organs in the abdominal cavity. The pleura is the membrane that surrounds the lungs and lines the wall of the chest cavity. The pericardium covers and protects the heart.

Mesothelioma cells can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs. Cancer cells can also metastasize (spread) from their original site to other parts of the body. Most cases of mesothelioma begin in the pleura or peritoneum.

How Common is Mesothelioma?

About 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in the United States each year. Mesothelioma occurs more often in men than in women and risk increases with age, but this disease can appear in either men or women at any age.

What are the Risk Factors for Mesothelioma?

Exposure to asbestos is the major risk factor for mesothelioma.  There are a number of different theories as to how asbestos causes mesothelioma.  It is thought that asbestos can cause mutations to cellular DNA and that it can also create inflammatory processes that can lead to cancer.

Mesothelioma Signs & Symptoms

Symptoms of mesothelioma may not appear until 30 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos.

  • Pleural Mesothelioma: Shortness of breath and pain in the chest due to an accumulation of fluid in the pleura are often symptoms of pleural mesothelioma.
  • Peritoneal Mesothelioma: Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include weight loss and abdominal pain and swelling due to a buildup of fluid in the abdomen. Other symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma may include bowel obstruction, blood clotting abnormalities, anemia, and fever.

If the cancer has spread beyond the mesothelium to other parts of the body, symptoms may include pain, trouble swallowing, or swelling of the neck or face.

What is the Mesothelioma Risk for Firefighters?

A 1990 study of 226 New York City firefighters, most of whom had been firefighters for at least twenty years, found that nearly half had chest x-rays which showed abnormalities characteristically caused by asbestos exposure.

To determine just how great the risk of mesothelioma and other cancers is to firefighters, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in partnership with the U.S. Fire Administration is conducting a study on the health records of more than 18,000 current and retired career firefighters.  NIOSH is a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  The study will examine connections between cancers such as mesothelioma in firefighters and exposure to asbestos and other toxins on the job.  The multi-year study is the largest health study ever conducted on firefighters.  The findings may help NIOSH and the Fire Administration to craft further recommendations and safety protocols to protect firefighters against mesothelioma and other cancers.

How Firefighters Can Protect Against Asbestos Exposure

Below are several prevention tips that firefighters can use in order to help prevent asbestos exposure.

  • Continue to wear self contained breathing apparatus while searching for hotspots during overhaul stage.
  • Wet those portions of the building where firefighters are working to reduce the amount of asbestos fibers released into the air.
  • Keep respirator cleaning supplies, replacement cartridges, and replacement respirators easily accessible.
  • Venting and entry techniques which involve opening walls, should always be performed while wearing protective equipment.
  • Do not handle dry dust at a fire. Only trained and certified abatement personnel should work to decontaminate areas that are suspected of containing asbestos.
  • After a fire, shower and change into clean clothes before leaving the workplace in order to avoid bringing home asbestos dust.

These precautions and others can help firefighters avoid asbestos exposure for themselves and their loved ones.