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Firefighters and other rescue workers have some of the toughest and most dangerous occupations in the United States as they fight fires and keep the public safe. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016 there were an estimated 327,000 firefighters employed in the United States, and the number of firefighters employed is expected to increase over the next decade.

01. Overview

How Are Firefighters at Risk of Asbestos Exposure

Older buildings and homes built before 1980 often contain many asbestos materials and other toxins. Decades ago, manufacturers included asbestos in thousands of products used inside and around the home, ranging from crockpots and hair dryers to ceiling tiles and attic insulation. In addition, the carcinogenic mineral could be found in other building materials used throughout the home, including asbestos siding, shingles, plaster and duct insulation as a fire retardant.

At-Risk Trades
  • Conservation employees
  • EMTs and paramedics
  • Fire inspectors
  • Hazardous materials workers
  • Police officers

In 2013, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published research compiled from about 30,000 firefighters and learned that their cancer risk was much higher than that of other occupations. The research showed that firefighters had a mesothelioma incidence rate that was twice as high as the general public, due to increased levels of asbestos exposure.

Firefighters today are well-protected when they enter burning buildings and are outfitted with personal protective gear known as turnout clothing. For example, a firefighter’s coat and pants are made out of two layers of fabric and capable of repelling heat. They also use a helmet, gloves and boots that have all been insulated to protect workers from getting burned. Additionally, firefighters are given a self-contained breathing apparatus, known as a SCBA, which helps them breathe in smoke-filled areas and in other spaces where the air is unsafe to inhale due to toxic dust and chemicals.

Following the 9/11 attacks, thousands of firefighters and other first responders raced to the World Trade Center towers in lower Manhattan to rescue survivors. In a rush to get to the scene, some firefighters and rescue workers weren’t wearing protective gear, including respirators. Because of that, they were likely exposed to a toxic dust containing concrete, glass and asbestos particles, along with dioxins and other chemicals.

Since September 11, 2001, several studies have shown a link between firefighters who were on the scene and increased risks of cancer, asthma, PTSD, COPD and other health issues. However, because the latency period for cancers like mesothelioma can be 20 years or more, more cases are likely to be reported.

02. Preventing Exposure

Preventing Asbestos Exposure

All firefighters need to wear protective gear, including respirators or SCBA, when on the scene of an emergency. This is especially important for times when a firefighter is entering or moving through an area where asbestos products may have been used. Though respirator kits can block out contaminants, exposure risks become a problem when firefighters are disturbing asbestos-containing materials while not wearing their respiratory kits.

There are specific regulations in place through international unions like the National Fire Protection Association that fire departments must adhere to. By closely following the requirements laid out in NFPA 1851, firefighters can avoid unnecessary exposure and the possibility of developing an asbestos-related disease.

Firefighters should routinely inspect their turnout gear for soiling, rips, tears, broken stitches and other damage. More in-depth inspections should be performed every year or whenever a problem is reported with the turnout gear during a routine inspection. In addition, every firefighter assigned protective equipment needs to clean their gear after each use. The cleaning process includes taking certain precautions like:

  • Using a hose to spray off debris and a soft bristle brush to clean off contaminants.
  • Wearing gloves and safety glasses to prevent direct exposure to any contaminants.
  • Gently scrubbing boots and gloves with soft-bristled brushes, and using a sponge for helmets and faceshields.

Protective equipment has a usable lifespan and should be retired when the equipment reaches the manufacturer’s suggested date. In other cases, equipment that is damaged and irreparable should be retired immediately. Firefighters should also take precautions to prevent asbestos fibers from coming home with them and potentially exposing their loved ones to fibers embedded in their clothing or on their body. Firefighters should shower before leaving the station to remove asbestos fibers from their skin and hair.

Because firefighters are at a higher risk of being exposed to asbestos materials, the U.S. Fire Administration suggests they can reduce their occupational hazard risk by undergoing routine medical monitoring. The International Association of Fire Fighters has a program available for employees to receive routine screenings, which allows doctors to discover and diagnose diseases like lung cancer or pleural mesothelioma earlier when more treatment options are available.

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