New Florida Legislation Protects Firefighters from Mesothelioma
The Florida Legislature has passed a bill designed to better protect its firefighters from cancer-causing contaminants, including toxic asbestos.
By approving the legislation, Florida joined a growing number of states that have passed laws in recent years to help firefighters combat occupational hazards they face every day.
The Firefighter Cancer Decontamination Equipment Grant Program in Florida will provide funding for departments to procure supplies, equipment and add additional training that should reduce exposure to hazardous pollutants.
It includes all fire departments across the state, from large municipal entities to small-town, volunteer fire stations.
“These firefighters are out there every day, making sure we’re all taken care of,” Florida state Rep. Elizabeth Fetterhoff, co-sponsor of the bill, told The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com. “We need to take care of them now.”
Cancer Leads Firefighter Line-of-Duty Deaths
The biggest threats to firefighters today are not the blazes they fight. They are the unseen pollutants that linger long after the flames are extinguished, the catalyst behind the latest legislation.
The national Firefighter Cancer Support Network has estimated that 61% of line-of-duty deaths are caused by cancer, easily the leading cause of occupational deaths for career firefighters.
Firefighters also have a 14% greater risk of dying from cancer than the general public, stemming from the high concentrations of toxic mineral fibers and combustion byproducts released during a fire.
One of those cancers is malignant mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive disease caused almost exclusively by the inhalation or ingestion of microscopic asbestos fibers.
Firefighters are 2.29 times more likely to develop mesothelioma than the general population, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Studies also have shown much higher rates of bladder and prostate cancers among younger firefighters than in the general public. Cancers throughout the respiratory, urinary and digestive systems have been seen in disproportionate numbers among firefighters.
Asbestos also can cause lung cancer and a variety of other serious diseases.
“We were able to pass a bill that is going to help prevent these cancer cases from even occurring,” Fetterhoff said. “The funding will provide the equipment and other resources so the firefighters are not even exposed to these carcinogens in the future.”
Asbestos Is Prevalent in Older Buildings
The threat to firefighters stems from the almost ubiquitous use of asbestos in residential and commercial construction throughout much of the 20th century.
Although it is highly regulated and rarely used in new construction today, asbestos remains prevalent in millions of older structures where firefighters often work.
Even with the most up-to-date respiratory gear, firefighters are at risk because those toxins can remain on equipment, protective gear and body parts long after the fire is out.
The latest legislation will ensure that all fire departments — big and small — have access to much-needed decontamination equipment that will standardize use and better prevent exposure.
“The grant will make sure that firefighters aren’t going home with carcinogens because their gear wasn’t properly decontaminated,” Fetterhoff said. “It will protect their families, too. And that’s been a real concern in the past.”
The bill complements previous legislation in Florida that extended health care benefits to firefighters diagnosed with 21 different types of cancer, including mesothelioma.
Firefighter Cancer Registry Recently Launched
More than 30 states have included cancer as an occupational disease for firefighters, allowing them to file claims for workers’ compensation and receive insurance-covered medical care.
There are an estimated 1.1 million firefighters throughout the United States today.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in 2019 launched the first Firefighter Cancer Registry, stemming from federal legislation a year earlier.
The goal of the registry — the first ever on a national scale — is to reduce the incidence of various cancers for firefighters by studying the links between workplace exposures and the deadly malignancies.
It also aims to raise awareness of better workplace practices, improve equipment and promote more thorough decontamination of gear, things the new Florida legislation is designed to do.
“Floridians depend on their local firefighters every day to come to their aid at a moment’s notice,” said State Sen. Aaron Bean, another co-sponsor of the bill. “This bill ensures that we are coming to their aid every day to keep them safe.”