Firefighting is a highly risky profession, not only because of the dangers posed by flames and fragile burning buildings themselves. In addition to smoke and soot, firefighters are routinely exposed to chemical substances, such as asbestos, in those buildings that may put them at risk for diseases later in life. Asbestos has been classified by the CDC as a carcinogen and has been shown to cause severe lung irritation, lung cancer, and a rare and aggressive cancer of the organ linings called mesothelioma.
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 will conduct 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.
Asbestos was used in thousands of building products such as floor tiles, drywall compounds, adhesives, insulation and shingles for more than 50 years in the U.S. and it still lingers in millions of homes, schools and other public buildings. Left undisturbed, it is not usually a threat. But when asbestos is burned, or is disturbed in the course of fighting a fire, tiny fibers of the mineral may be released into the air. When inhaled, these sharp airborne mineral fibers have been shown to lodge deep in lung tissue, potentially triggering a chain of physiological reactions that may result in mesothelioma 20, 30 or even 50 years after the initial exposure.
Fortunately, the protective gear firefighters wear when entering a fire is usually sufficient to shield them from exposure to asbestos and other toxins. But, if they have to remove that gear for any reason, such as to help a fire victim, their own lungs are unprotected. After the initial fire has been put out and there is no longer a risk of smoke inhalation, it is not unusual for firefighters to go into a damaged building without breathing equipment in order to assess damage, at which time they may also encounter asbestos, as well as other noxious substances such as formaldehyde.
By analyzing deaths among firefighters, the NIOSH researchers hope to be able to expose links between their exposure to contaminants like asbestos and the development of cancers like mesothelioma. The multi-year study is the largest health study ever conducted on firefighters. The findings may help NIOSH and the Fire Administration to craft recommendations and safety protocols to protect firefighters against mesothelioma and other cancers.
USFA and NIOSH Initiate Study of Cancer Among Firefighters. April 21, 2010. The US Fire Administration Website.
NIOSH Conducting Study of Firefighting’s Cancer Risk. March 6, 2010. Occupational Health & Safety/OHS Online.