The primary job of a firefighter is to put out fires. It is a dangerous job that requires organization and teamwork. When a building or structure is on fire, local firefighters are often the first responders to the scene. Not only do heat and flames put them in danger, but damaged structures - walls, floors and ceilings - can cave in or collapse. Without regard for their safety, these men and women save lives as a top priority and also reduce property damage.
Firefighters also respond to non-fire related calls regarding a car accident, a flooded area, or someone suffering from difficulty in breathing, choking, heart attack or seizure. In between calls, these workers clean and repair their equipment, practice their skills and perform inspections. As of 2011, there were 1.1 million firefighters in the United States: 344,050 paid firefighters and 756,400 volunteers.
Because many buildings constructed between the 1930s and 1970s contain heavily toxic materials, including asbestos-containing products, career and volunteer firefighters are at risk of asbestos exposure. When not on the scene of a fire emergency, they work at fire stations where they sleep, eat and remain on-call during shifts that often last 24 hours. Some fire stations are also an asbestos risk if they were built prior to the 1980s and not renovated properly.
Products and Locations
Firefighters are exposed to different types of asbestos products such as:
- Building Material: Many buildings built prior to 1980 were constructed with asbestos-containing materials such as roofing materials, cement, asbestos sheets, fume hoods, drywall taping compounds, floor and ceiling tiles, pipe insulation, duct insulation, furnace door gaskets, shingles, and vinyl.
- Protective Clothing: Considering the nature of the work, it seemed only natural to dress firefighters in uniforms that could withstand high heat, thus containing asbestos. From the 1903s to the 1970s, their helmets, coats, pants and boots were made with asbestos. Some protective clothing still contains asbestos, though in smaller quantities than in the past.
- Fire Stations: Dust from their gear after they return from a call can build up in the fire station, posing another exposure risk. During down time, firefighters may conduct repairs on the fire station, potentially exposing them to asbestos-containing construction products if the fire station was built before the 1980s.
Firefighters are mostly exposed to asbestos during the time they spend in or around a burning building that was constructed with asbestos, because during the fire, even heat-resistant asbestos-containing products can burn when subjected to such extreme heat. When it degrades or decomposes, its fibers become airborne. Although firefighters often wear oxygen masks, it is not a requirement when fire danger is not imminent. Without a mask on, they are more at risk for exposure, which puts them more at risk for developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses.
Some asbestos products that these men and women are exposed to when entering a fire-damaged building include roofing materials, cement, floor and ceiling tiles, pipe insulation, duct insulation, furnace door gaskets, shingles and vinyl. These same products may be present in fire stations, and when firefighters conduct general maintenance around their living quarters, they may be exposed to asbestos.
Unfortunately for firefighters, the same equipment designed to protect them was a health hazard. Because of its heat-resistant properties, some equipment and clothing included asbestos materials before the dangers of asbestos were widely known, including asbestos helmets and coats. Persistent daily exposure to these items posed a serious risk for developing asbestos-related diseases. However these items are rarely used anymore.
Asbestos Exposure among 9/11 Firefighters
Firefighters who responded to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York City are at high risk for asbestos exposure that could lead to mesothelioma cancer and other asbestos-related diseases. As the buildings collapsed, firefighters and other first responders were exposed to tremendous amounts of smoke, dust and debris, which contained asbestos fibers that became airborne.
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Typically, symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases take 10 to 50 years to appear and for an official diagnosis to be made, but the sheer amount of asbestos fibers that were released into the air that day may accelerate disease in responders.
Anyone who worked at ground zero should regularly monitor their health and look for any asbestos-related symptoms. Because early symptoms of mesothelioma are so mild, such as fatigue and slight pain around the tumor, few people notice or recognize them, and many do not experience any symptoms until later stages of the cancer. However, public awareness and governmental mandates are making it easier to detect mesothelioma early.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the United States Fire Administration (USFA) partnered together to conduct a multiyear study examining the potential for increased risk of cancer, such as mesothelioma, among firefighters due to exposures from smoke, soot and other contaminants present on the job, including asbestos.
This study is intended to improve upon past studies, which have been deemed not extensive enough to provide factual information. More than 18,000 current and retired firefighters are under examination in hopes that a larger number of participants will yield a greater statistical reliability.
In a study conducted in Massachusetts between 1987 and 2003, it was found that male firefighters were at risk for asbestos exposure on the job. The study identified strong evidence of an association between firefighting and the development of asbestos-related cancers such as kidney cancer, bladder cancer and
leukemia, a cancer that is loosely associated with asbestos exposure. Weaker but plausible evidence was gathered for male firefighters' risk for asbestos-related cancers such as colon cancer and rectum cancer.
Dozens of Everett, Washington, firefighters filed a lawsuit against the city in 2010 over their exposure to asbestos. They were exposed to asbestos in July 2007 while conducting training exercises in city-owned homes. At least one fire official was aware of the presence of asbestos in the training homes, but the training still took place. The crews were not wearing their self-contained breathing gear, like they would in the case of an actual fire, which put them at risk.
All firefighters involved in the suit were more interested in receiving lifetime medical monitoring for potential asbestos-related health problems than receiving a check. The city first offered 27 out of the 49 firefighters lifetime medical monitoring based on their potential asbestos exposure. However, in December 2011, the city settled the lawsuit by agreeing to pay for lifetime medical monitoring for all 49 firefighters.
The city is also obligated to pay for health care if problems arise. The city would pay for medical costs up to $750,000. After that, the city's insurance would pick up the remaining amount.
Furthermore, after the lawsuit was settled, the city of Everett took the initiative to prevent asbestos exposure in the future by inspecting buildings for hazards before firefighters tear them apart during training and by requiring crews to wear breathing protection during the drills and undergo decontamination afterward. Firefighters also have been provided with valuable training on avoiding asbestos and other airborne risks.
Firefighters, among others who were by the New York City World Trade Centers at the time of the 9/11 attacks, were exposed to a heavy amount of asbestos, and many filed lawsuits to seek compensation. Asbestos materials were known to be used in the construction of the World Trade Center buildings. As the buildings were engulfed in flames and collapsed, asbestos particles entered the air. First responders, victims, local residents and workers all became exposed to the toxic material. All workers who assisted in the rescue and recovery efforts for the days and weeks after the attacks were among the many who now have demonstrated health illnesses including asbestos-related diseases.
Those exposed to asbestos dust from 9/11 initially filed a claim in 2003 and they finally reached a settlement in 2010 that provides them with as much as $657 million in compensation, split among the workers based on each individual's severity of illness. Most if not all of the money would come out of a $1 billion grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
A. P. Green Industries, Armstrong World Industries, CertainTeed Corp., Celotex, Combustion Engineering, Crown Cork and Seal, Duro-Dyne, EaglePicher, GAF Corporation, Georgia-Pacific, Johns Manville Corporation, Kaiser Aluminum, National Gypsum Co., Owens Corning, Owens-Illinois, Pacor Incorporated, Rich-Tex Inc., Rock Wool Manufacturing, Shook & Fletcher, The Flintkote Company, Tishman Construction, Unarco , U.S. Mineral (Cafco , Western MacArthur and W.R. Grace manufactured asbestos products that put firefighters at risk for exposure.
- National employment, 2011: 344,050
- National Employment, Including Unpaid Volunteers, 2011: 1,100,450
- Current average age (of all energy workers): 30-39
- Similar occupations: Correctional Officers, EMTS and Paramedics, Fire Inspectors and Investigators, Police and Detectives, Security Guards and Gaming Surveillance Officers
- Previously Exposed: Yes
- Still Being Exposed: Yes
- Asbestos-Related Disease Risk: High
- States with Highest Employment: California, Texas, Florida, Ohio, Illinois.