Firefighters face extreme dangers on the job, including exposure to toxic asbestos from building fires, construction materials and firefighting gear. As a result of the exposure, firefighters run an increased risk for developing asbestos diseases, including mesothelioma. Multiple studies show cancer is the leading cause of death for career firefighters, accounting for up to 70% of all occupational fatalities in firefighters.

Firefighters also run the risk of asbestos exposure from aging fire trucks, secondhand contact and building collapse, including the 9/11 collapse of the Twin Towers in New York City. Firefighters exposed to asbestos and developed mesothelioma, lung cancer or any other associated cancers are entitled to total compensation for their injuries.

How Firefighters Were Exposed to Asbestos

From the early 1930s to the early 1980s, building product manufacturers used asbestos liberally. Firefighters, like so many others, were never notified of the dangers or warned to take precautions.  While asbestos has been phased out of production, asbestos products remain in buildings today. Firefighters are at risk for exposure, particularly from asbestos fires in older buildings that release plumes of toxic fibers during a blaze.

Asbestos in Buildings

During America’s building boom, manufacturers considered asbestos a phenomenal product because it is fire, chemical and heat resistant. Building material companies put the dangerous mineral in everything used in construction. Some of the more widely used asbestos-containing materials include:

  • Adhesivessealants
  • Drywall
  • Electric wiring
  • Cement siding and powder
  • Fireproofing materials
  • Floor and ceiling tiles
  • Insulation
  • Paint
  • Roofing shingles and tiles
  • Mechanical gaskets
  • Joint compound
  • Soundproofing materials

When structures with asbestos materials burn, toxic fibers are released into the air. Firefighters can unknowingly inhale or swallow the fibers, which can lead to an asbestos disease.

Asbestos in Fire Engines

In addition to asbestos in buildings, asbestos was also used in vehicles, including fire trucks. Throughout the 20th century, the toxic mineral was added to vehicle insulation and brake pads to reduce the chances of overheating. In addition, asbestos was used in other areas of a firetruck:

  • Clutch assemblies
  • Mechanical gaskets
  • Water hoses
  • Protective equipment (including asbestos fire suits)

Like all other vehicle parts, components that contain asbestos wear down and disintegrate over the years. When that happens, loose asbestos fibers become a danger to anyone nearby.

Secondhand Exposure to Asbestos

Firefighters also risk secondhand asbestos exposure from contaminated personal protective equipment (PPE) and clothing. Contaminated gear should never be brought into a sleeping area or a private vehicle. Contaminated gear should not be brought home either because family members can inhale or ingest the fibers.

Asbestos Diseases and Firefighters 

Due to the dangerous nature of their work, firefighters run the risk of developing malignant (cancerous) and non-malignant medical conditions. Since individual strands of asbestos fibers are invisible to the naked eye, tasteless and odorless, firefighters never know when they are exposed. Inhaled and ingested asbestos fibers cause devastating illnesses that take years to develop. The diseases don’t just impact the lungs – asbestos-related health conditions can happen throughout the body:

  • Mesothelioma Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that attacks the tissue surrounding the lungs, heart and abdominal organs. Firefighters are twice as likely to develop mesothelioma when compared to the general population.
  • Lung cancer – At first glance, mesothelioma and lung cancer appear to be similar diseases. However, asbestos lung cancer attacks the inside of the lungs rather than the tissue around the lungs. Asbestos lung cancer kills more Americans than any other asbestos disease.
  • Other types of cancers – Asbestos causes other malignancies, including ovarian, testicular, digestive, pancreatic, stomach, oral, respiratory and urinary tract cancers.
  • Non-cancerous health conditions – Asbestos-related health conditions that are not cancerous can cause a lifelong disability. Conditions including asbestosis, pleural plaques, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and pleural effusions can be painful and debilitating.

Firefighters Exposed to Asbestos During 9/11

When terrorists weaponized commercial aircraft during the 9/11 attacks in 2001, three buildings at the World Trade Center collapsed into piles of rubble while rescue personnel bravely tried to evacuate victims. During the building collapses, massive dust clouds of toxins – including asbestos – consumed the area. When firefighters converged on the location, many did not have proper PPE because they rushed to the scene to help. They were covered in dust and ash as they attempted to save lives. In the weeks that followed, first responders by the hundreds joined in the rescue and recovery efforts.

Studies show firefighters and other rescue personnel, including police officers and EMTs, have a high rate of fatal cancers. In fact, 9/11 first responders alone are 19% more likely to develop cancer. Since asbestos cancer takes 20 to 50 years to develop, 9/11 responders will remain at risk for developing mesothelioma and other asbestos health conditions for decades to come.  Asbestos trust funds are available to help first responders and their families with the financial challenges that come with a devastating disease.

How Can Firefighters Avoid Asbestos Exposure?

The Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN), which supports firefighters and EMS providers, put together a list of suggestions for first responders to protect themselves from asbestos ingestion:

  • Contain contaminated gear in large garbage bags until it can be adequately cleaned.
  • Wear N95 respirator masks, full PPE or, better yet, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) when working with debris. 
  • Steam clean cloth apparatus seats and other soft, hard-to-clean surfaces.
  • Shower and wash contaminated clothes before going home to prevent secondhand exposure.
  • Request safety training to better prepare personnel for the proper protocols.
  • Safely dispose of asbestos-containing materials from buildings before demolition.
  • Get screened for occupational diseases regularly.

Resources for Firefighters

Due to the long-lasting health impacts of the 9/11 debris, lawmakers created the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund (VCF), also known as the James Zadroga Act, to compensate firefighters and other first responders.  The fund was reauthorized in 2019 with $10.2 billion for claims through 2090 for victims and their families.

Firefighters should also pursue compensation through established trust funds to pay for medical care, travel, lost wages and other expenses. Our wide-ranging resources connect asbestos-disease victims to attorneys who fight for victim’s rights. Contact us to learn if you qualify for compensation.

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Written by Richard Stewart

Writer, Content Coordinator and Outreach Director

Richard Stewart is a writer, content coordinator and outreach director with over 12 years of experience covering asbestos exposure, mesothelioma, and treatment options. He is passionate about spreading awareness for asbestos and mesothelioma and helping victims find the information and resources they need online.

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