Perhaps there is no more dangerous profession for asbestos exposure than that of the firefighter profession. Each day firefighters put their lives on the line helping others. Unfortunately, many firefighters are endangered by environmental, chemical and other hazards while they are working, and often, they do not even know it. What many firefighters are gradually awakening to is the reality that asbestos can be encountered in many more aspects of the profession than they were previously aware of. Because the risks that firefighters face are so great we have also made a number of health and safety resources available for those in the profession as well as their families in order to help keep them safe and informed.
Common Environmental, Chemical and Other Hazards Faced by Firefighters
The first hazard that probably comes to mind when you consider the dangers faced by firefighters is fire. While firefighters are well-equipped to withstand high heat and avoid being burned, these risks are ever-present. Environmental hazards include exposure to asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral responsible for mesothelioma cancer. The most common place that a firefighter will encounter asbestos is in the initial stages of extinguishing a fire. Burning asbestos materials can damage asbestos to a point where the fibers are easily released into the air. Most protective equipment that firefighters use during this phase will eliminate the risk of inhalation, but what is important for firefighters to remember is that asbestos products can continue to release asbestos fibers into the air after the flames have been put out and as debris is cooling off slowly. It is imperative that firefighters wear a self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA, even after the actual fire has been extinguished to avoid inhaling asbestos.
Although less common, it is also possible that asbestos could be encountered within firehouses themselves. Many of these buildings are older municipal structures whose infrastructure required a resistance to temperature extremes. For this reason many of the piping and electrical fixtures were insulated with asbestos compounds, putting those who repaired or encountered these components regularly, at potential risk.
Additional hazards include inhalation of airborne toxins, such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and hydrogen cyanide and, of course, smoke inhalation. Respiratory issues are not uncommon in firefighters. Many develop chronic issues, including lingering cough, hoarseness, asthma, and allergies, and in more extreme cases, may find themselves diagnosed with lung or bronchial cancer. Firefighters are also said to be at an increased risk of bladder and kidney cancer due to toxic exposures. Other occupational dangers include exposure to tainted blood if the firefighter is also certified to administer emergency medical treatment. There have been a limited number of reports of firefighters and other first responders contracting blood-borne diseases, such as Hepatitis C or HIV/AIDS after exposure to an infected person. Firefighters also run a high risk of having a stress-induced heart attack, may experience gradual hearing loss due to loud sirens, are prone to back and muscle pain, and run the risk of falling from ladders and other heights. They are also at an increased risk of getting into a vehicle accident due to traveling at high speeds. Firefighters are also at an increased risk of experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, if they experience a particularly scary or emotional experience while at work.
Protecting Firefighters from Occupational Hazards
There are a number of ways that firefighters can protect themselves from the numerous occupational dangers above. The most important piece of safety equipment for a firefighter is their SCBA. An SCBA can protect firefighters from inhaling any airborne chemicals, including asbestos, and provides safe, clean, breathable air for the firefighter while they are fighting a fire. It is comprised of three parts: a mouthpiece, a regulator and a high-pressure tank. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, is responsible for certifying SCBAs. Firefighters should utilize a NIOSH-approved device, and wear it all times while at the scene of a fire. Even once the smoke has cleared and the flames have been eliminated a firefighter is at risk of inhaling potentially deadly chemicals. The SCBA mouthpiece should completely cover the firefighter’s nose and mouth in order for it to be effective.
To minimize their risk of other on-the-job hazards, firefighters can take other precautions. Staying hydrated and physically fit will help firefighters avoid muscle and joint pain and reduce their risk of heart attack. If a firefighter is climbing a particularly high ladder, it is imperative that they have a spotter on the ground to ensure that they do not fall. In addition, firefighters should consider using a PASS, or Personal Alert Safety System, device while on the job. The PASS device will notify other firefighters or first responders in the immediate area if the wearer is experiencing distress. If a firefighter has not moved in a certain period of time, for example, the PASS will emit a loud noise to let others know that the wearer requires assistance. The PASS device is also helpful for firefighters when one of their own is missing and they are searching a dark, smoky building. Many newer-model SCBAs also contain a built-in PASS device. A firefighter’s PASS device should be OSHA approved.
Limiting Secondhand Asbestos Exposure
Many firefighters may not even consider the dangers of exposing others, like their family members, to asbestos. Reports of malignant mesothelioma cancer as a result of secondhand exposure to asbestos have risen in the last decade, so it is important that firefighters understand how they can protect others. Prior to leaving the scene of a fire, firefighters should remove their safety outerwear and any other clothing or equipment, including shoes and gloves that may contain asbestos fibers. These items should be contained so that the asbestos fibers cannot be transferred from one location to another. They should then be cleaned and decontaminated if necessary. Firefighters who may have been exposed to asbestos should also clean themselves before returning home so that they do not expose their family members.
As with many types of illness associated with occupational hazardous exposure, pleural mesothelioma (the type of mesothelioma most commonly diagnosed in firefighters) has a long latency period, of anywhere between ten and fifty years. It is absolutely crucial that people in this particular profession monitor their respiratory health in an effort to diagnose this and other diseases in their early stages, when the illness may be most susceptible to treatment. Firefighters should report any health concerns to a superior and then seek medical attention, as it may be an indication of a bigger health problem.
Laws Pertaining to Firefighter Cancers
There have been dozens of studies linking on-the-job exposure to cancer in firefighters. As of January 2011, the William Dallas Jones Cancer Presumption Act, or AB 2253, is undergoing review with the hopes that the previous statute of limitations pertaining to firefighter cancers will be expanded. The additions to the previous cancer presumption laws - which were enacted over twenty years ago - will more accurately represent the high risk of cancer and other career-related illnesses faced by firefighters. The additions were introduced by California Assemblyman Joe Coto on behalf of the California Professional Firefighters Association, or CPF.
The current laws provide what is known as "rebuttable presumption," which indicates that cancers that develop or are diagnosed while a firefighter is on "active duty" are presumed to be job-related and therefore require appropriate compensation for the firefighter. Currently, the statute of limitations is just sixty months.
Firefighters, however, may develop different types of cancer, like mesothelioma, that do not manifest until the sixty-month statute has passed. The latency period for certain job-related cancers in firefighters ranges between ten and thirty years. As a result, Assemblyman Coto is pushing for a prolonged statute of limitations for firefighter cancers. If the additions pass, the statute of limitations will be increased by as many as fifteen years, or more, to account for the latency period of such illnesses.
AB 2253 was named for William "Dallas" Jones, a firefighter who served Los Angeles County in California for almost forty years. Mr. Jones was diagnosed with cancer in 2007 and died just over a year later. The bill was approved in June of 2010.
Where Can Firefighters Get Additional Health Information?
The National Volunteer Firefighter Council (NVFC) website is an excellent source of information for firefighters and their families who are looking to educate themselves about the dangers associated with this noble profession. The NVFC has also launched an initiative called HeartHealthy Firefighter, which provides crucial content about the leading cause of death for firefighters and emergency medical personnel: heart disease.
The U.S. Fire Administration is also a helpful resource for people in this profession, and provides a wealth of information related to health and safety issues.