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First responders may have been exposed to asbestos while assisting with natural disasters and other events. Asbestos in buildings and equipment may expose firefighters, paramedics and law enforcement officers. As a result, they may develop an asbestos disease, such as mesothelioma.


01. Asbestos Risk for First Responders

How Are First Responders Exposed to Asbestos?

First responders risk exposure to asbestos while assisting with disaster recovery and repair. Asbestos was used frequently in buildings constructed before 1980. Natural and man-made catastrophes can disturb asbestos products in these buildings. This presents an exposure risk to anyone present before clean-up is completed. Exposure to asbestos can lead to various diseases, such as mesothelioma cancer.

Facts About First Responders
  • 261,000 EMTs and paramedics, 326,100 firefighters, 808,200 police officers and 10,600 emergency management directors in the United States (2021)
  • Asbestos Exposure: Previous and ongoing exposure risk
  • Asbestos-Related Disease Risk: Moderate

First responders risk exposure during and after any event that disturbs asbestos. This may include damage to asbestos-containing infrastructure, asbestos deposits or equipment with asbestos products. Common types of disasters first responders may be involved with include:

  • Natural disasters: Hurricanes, floods and wildfires can cause damage to asbestos-containing materials in buildings. These destructive events may tear apart older buildings and equipment. This can damage internal asbestos products. Asbestos products may spread widely around the area in the wake of natural disasters. For example, New Jersey officials warned residents of possible asbestos exposure after Hurricane Sandy.
  • Intentional man-made disasters: Terrorist attacks, such as the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, may also disturb and spread asbestos. First responders may come into contact with the mineral while putting out associated fires, performing search and rescue operations and cleaning up these catastrophes.
  • Unintentional man-made disasters: Unintentionally created man-made disasters include waterline bursts, gas explosions and other unplanned failures of equipment. Old infrastructure such as water pipes may contain asbestos. Any disturbance or wearing of these components may spread the dangerous carcinogen around.

Many professionals may be exposed to asbestos while responding to these events. In some cases, such as gas explosions, they may be equipped with standard personal protective equipment (PPE) during response and cleanup. However, immediate response teams may not be wearing PPE. For instance, paramedics are often more vulnerable to inhaling or ingesting airborne irritants, such as asbestos dust.

World Trade Center Attacks Expose Many First Responders

The 9/11 World Trade Center terrorist attacks in New York City exposed thousands of individuals to hazardous materials. The twin towers contained hundreds of tons of asbestos. The fall of the towers released toxic dust containing asbestos and other contaminants for blocks.

First responders may have inhaled or ingested the dust. As a result, many first responders and others present at Ground Zero have been diagnosed with various illnesses, including mesothelioma. Affected individuals include New York City police, response teams, fire department and emergency personnel.

First responders and other victims who develop 9/11-related health issues may be eligible for benefits. For instance, the World Trade Center Health Program offers various services to victims. Some benefits include health monitoring and treatment. Victims can seek health care through the program at various medical facilities, such as Mount Sinai Medical Center. The 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund (VCF) also provides monetary awards for patients with health conditions caused by the attacks.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enacted asbestos regulations. These laws limit the mineral’s legal usage. However, there is no requirement to retrofit older buildings and infrastructure still containing asbestos. As a result, first responders may still be exposed to asbestos when these older products are damaged or disturbed.

What Asbestos Products Put First Responders at Risk?

Asbestos and asbestos products were used frequently in buildings, infrastructure and machinery before the 1980s. The mineral’s strength, low cost and natural resistance to flame and chemicals made it valuable. However, it also poses an extreme health risk when inhaled or ingested.

First responders may have been exposed to asbestos from:

Many asbestos companies produced, distributed and used these products. These companies may have been aware of the negative health effects of the mineral. However, various manufacturers incorporated asbestos into products for nearly a century. As a result, many first responders may have been exposed to the mineral, and it continues to pose a threat.

Manufacturers of Asbestos Products First Responders May Be Exposed To

Common Places First Responders May Find Asbestos

Asbestos was commonly used in areas likely to undergo heat, pressure and/or chemical exposure. This includes any temperature-based equipment, such as HVAC systems and boilers. Fire-resistant materials such as insulation and other building materials also contained asbestos. First responders may be exposed to these products in the buildings or in debris after a disaster.

Areas where first responders may come into contact with asbestos include:

There is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Enclosed areas present a higher risk for inhalation or ingestion because there is little ventilation. This may cause higher concentrations of fibers in the air. As a result, asbestos in attics may be more likely to present a health risk than asbestos debris on a beach. Even so, first responders should be cautious of potential asbestos exposure in any settings after a destructive event.

First Responders and At-Risk Trades

Many different individuals may be considered first responders in times of need. Typically, these fields include medical personnel, law enforcement officers and firefighters. These individuals may come into contact with asbestos during relief efforts.

At-risk professions in the first responders field include:

  • Emergency medical technicians (EMTs)
  • Firefighters
  • Law enforcement officers
  • Military personnel
  • Paramedics
  • Police officers
  • Rescue workers
  • Search and rescue personnel
  • Volunteers

Any of these individuals may find themselves at risk of asbestos exposure when responding to a disaster. Firefighters are among the most at risk for exposure. Their response efforts are often immediately during and after an event, providing little to no time for cleanup. In addition, some fire suits were made with the mineral itself for flame resistance. Damage to the suits could result in asbestos exposure.

First responders may also unwittingly expose their loved ones to asbestos. This is called secondary asbestos exposure. It can occur when asbestos fibers settle on a person or their belongings and travel to a secondary location. Family members at home may inhale or ingest the fibers. Borrowing asbestos-contaminated belongings, hugging first responders or assisting with their laundry can all potentially cause exposure.

02. Mesothelioma Risk for First Responders

Mesothelioma Risk for First Responders

First responders may come into contact with asbestos while attending to natural disasters and man-made catastrophes. Asbestos exposure of any level can lead to the development of illnesses, such as mesothelioma cancer.

Firefighters are among the first responders most at risk for an asbestos disease. Researchers in the United States and several Nordic countries have found significantly increased incidences of mesothelioma cases among firefighters compared to the general population.

Other asbestos-related diseases first responders may face include:

EMTs, search and rescue personnel and cleanup crews may all face these diseases if exposed to asbestos. First responders may want to undergo routine medical monitoring if they believe they were exposed to asbestos. In fact, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) has a program for members to receive routine screenings. The World Trade Center Health Program also offers health monitoring for 9/11 survivors.

Routine cancer screenings may allow mesothelioma doctors to diagnose asbestos-related cancers earlier. More treatment options may be available for mesothelioma patients diagnosed in early stages of the disease.

03. Compensation for First Responders

Compensation for Victims of Occupational Asbestos Exposure

First responders who develop an asbestos-related disease may be eligible for compensation. First responders exposed in the line of duty may be able to file a mesothelioma lawsuit, asbestos trust fund claim or workers’ compensation claim for their asbestos illness. Individuals exposed during the World Trade Center attacks may also be able to file a claim with the 9/11 VCF.

September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) Can Provide Monetary Awards for First Responders

The VCF provides compensation for victims who suffer a 9/11-related injury. This includes first responders who develop an asbestos-related disease because they were exposed after the World Trade Center attacks. Loved ones who lost a family member because of a 9/11-related injury may also receive compensation from the fund.

In 2019, the VCF was authorized to fulfill claims through 2090 with the Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization legislation. This act provided the fund with $10.2 billion to fulfill current and future claims.

An experienced mesothelioma attorney can help first responders and loved ones determine the best course of action for compensation. Lawyers with asbestos claim and litigation experience can help first responders hold responsible parties accountable for their disease. Asbestos victims should contact a mesothelioma law firm to discuss their legal options.